Imagination and Mess

My living room has toys all over it. I don’t pick up toys after my sons unless there are extenuating circumstances (or it just really starts to bug me). I will leave the toys where they are until the kids get home from school and can pick them up for themselves. But as I look around, I’m finding traces of their imaginative exploits and can’t help but smile.

  • A rolled up piece of construction paper, a shark, a dinosaur, a lion, a crocodile, and a book about animals. They went on an “expedition” together. The construction paper was their magical map that could show the whole world or just the area where they stood. They were searching for animals who were “living free and in the wild”–a phrase they learned from the Wild Kratts, who also star in their animal book. At different times my living room was North America, my second floor was South America, my kitchen was Africa, etc. They went all around the world together with minimal sibling bickering.
  • Black Widow and a train tunnel. The Avengers saved the day again, though they may have sustained some losses. At least Black Widow has both her legs. The last time I found her on the floor she was a double amputee. It seems the reattachment surgery went well.
  • A big Lego firetruck, an 18-wheeler, and several loose legos. They’re the big sized legos because my younger son is too young for the small ones. Those are hidden away so my older son can play with them while little brother naps. But they still play with the big ones together. I don’t know what buildings were saved or demolished, possibly both, but the evidence of a great adventure abounds.
  • Books. My older son can read, and when he’s feeling generous he’ll read to his younger brother.
  • Pieces of the preschool “build your own robot” set. They built a robot together. It moved, so they chased it and laughed until they ran it into the wall too many times and it broke apart again (it snaps back together, so it’s not broken). I don’t know why only one piece is left. Let’s hope it’s because they already put the others away.
  • Bobba Fett wearing a football helmet. If I remember correctly he was matched up against Chewbacca. I don’t know who won.
  • Pages from the Star Wars day calendar someone gave them. It’s a miracle those are at least gathered in a pile because they were being thrown about the room so the boys could dance through the “paper storm”.
  • The hat from my brother’s old Navy uniform. They protected the “high seas” today.

My sons are blessed with imagination. There are days when I look at the mess that gets left behind after one of their “adventures” and I get irritated. I grumble about dodging their debris and feeling like the walls are closing in. But there are other days when I look around and am so grateful. I’m grateful for the generosity of our friends and family who are part of the reason they have so many things to play with. I’m thankful that they like to play together–even if I have to break up an argument with some regularity. I’m thankful they both are gifted with imaginations that let them travel the world and save the day.

And then I look at my workspace. Blankets, notebooks, pens, bookmarks, books. Even on my computer, my bookmarked sites are nothing but organized chaos. There are separate folders for inspiration and research for different manuscripts, workout programs, music lessons, podcasts and more. It’s my own writer mom version of toys strewn about because I was too busy creating new worlds to worry about keeping it all tidy.

Sometimes feeding your imagination is messy and that’s okay.

I’m Not Your Search Engine

The online writing community is friendly, supportive, and helpful. As with any community, there can be exceptions to the rule, but I’ve found this to be true far more often than not. Other writers love to share experiences and knowledge, to commiserate, celebrate, and bond with others like them (or not like them!). However, being so willing to share what I know does not make me your secretary, your search engine, or your virtual assistant.

If you are genuinely having trouble finding information or understanding something you’ve read about, by all means, ask your questions to the online community. Someone will be able to help you. But if you are tweeting out a question simply because you don’t want to ask a search engine, that’s abusing the kindness of others. People notice.

An example I’ll give–though I will not supply screenshots or names because that is not the point of this post–involves the rules to a pitch contest. There is a website where anyone who wants to participate can find the rules to the contest, as is true with many such contests. I distinctly remember the first time I participated, there was some buzz about it on Twitter prior to the contest itself where many hopefuls were discussing it using the hashtag. Enter into the conversation a person who we’ll call Newbie.

Now, Newbie’s first question was when the actual pitch party would take place. Innocent enough. He could have meant what hours, which day, which time zone, etc. So many people obliged to answer his question and be as specific as possible. Newbie was very thankful and polite. He next asked what the rules were. He was given the web address for the site with any and all information he might need. It was his response that made us all step back. It went something like this, “That’s a lot of information to comb through, can you just give the highlights?”

No. For several reasons, but still no.

I started to list all the reasons that attitude was rude, but honestly, it started to irritate me just thinking about it. The biggest offenses are that it’s lazy and it implies that Newbie’s time is more valuable than the rest of us. We aren’t sitting around on our butts eating bonbons. We read through the complete rules page, so could Newbie. He was not unable. He just didn’t feel like it. It’s not a good sign in an industry known for deadlines and self-discipline.

This is just one example that sticks out in my memory, but there are so many more. Remember that while the writing community is a community, it is also a collection of people who are, in a sense, your colleagues. If you showed up to work and told your coworker that a task seemed too daunting and then asked them to do most of it for you, that wouldn’t go over well. At least not in any position I’ve held.

Be kind, be courteous, be engaged, but also be professional. I’m not saying you can’t wear pajamas, but when it comes to writing or promoting your writing, show initiative. If Google, Siri, or Alexa can answer your question, look there first. If you need clarification, the community is there and happy to help. We’re your coworkers, not your search engine.

I certainly don’t mean for this to discourage anyone from asking questions or having fun with the online writing community. That would be tragic. It’s a great place to connect. It’s a great place to get advice. It’s the virtual water cooler in an office filled with really cool people. Joke, laugh, connect. Just don’t abuse the kindness of those around you. It’s not a good look.

10 Things about Valentine’s Day

It’s the tenth of the month! Around here that means it’s time for me to spout off random trivia in hopes that you might find any of it interesting or helpful.

In fiction, especially in Fantasy and Science Fiction, worldbuilding is an important element in telling the story. We want the reader to become part of our world. I’ve touched before on athletic topics and how we can use sports to make our world seem more real. Another way is to assign holidays.

Most cultures around the world have at least a few major holidays and some minor ones as well. Religious holidays are generally the most well-known, but not all major holidays have something to do with religion. Think about the holidays you celebrate during the year. Think about how you celebrate, whether you get the day off or not, whether you celebrate with family or not, etc. The people in your fictional world might celebrate an armistice, a religious event, a monarch’s jubilee, etc. And a holiday that has been celebrated for a number of years might change over time.

This month, our case study is Valentine’s Day. Here are 10 Things about February 14th.

  1. Saint Valentine’s day is still part of the official Anglican and Lutheran calendars of commemorative saints days, but has been removed from the official Roman Catholic calendar as of 1969. Even so, it is still widely celebrated.
  2. There were no less than three saints named Valentine/Valentinus, all of whom were martyrs. The two best known were both originally buried on the Via Flaminia in Rome between 269 and 275 AD, though the remains of at least one of them have been relocated. Both are said to have died on February 14th.
  3. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, Saint Valentine is commemorated on July 6th.
  4. There are legends that say a priest named Valentine secretly performed marriages for soldiers under Roman Emperor Claudius II who forbade the practice reasoning that single men made better soldiers because they were less concerned about the wives they left at home. However, there is serious doubt that any such ban on marriage ever existed.
  5. There was a priest named Valentine who was imprisoned in Rome for ministering to Christians during a time when Christianity was cause for persecution. It is believed that this Valentine healed the daughter of his jailer, and the entire family of the jailer converted to Christianity as a result. The legend goes on to say, though this part is more disputed, that Valentine fell in love with the jailer’s daughter and on the night before his execution wrote her a letter signing it “Your Valentine.”
  6. There is still no record of Valentine’s Day or February 14th being associated with romantic love until 1400s England when it was mentioned by Chaucer and his contemporaries. There is also a poem the Duke of Orleans wrote to his wife during his imprisonment in the Tower of London after the Battle of Agincourt (1415 AD), which is considered the oldest “Valentine” on record.
  7. Formal “valentines”–handwritten notes or tokens of affection traded on Saint Valentine’s Day–became more popular in the 1500s, but were not commonly traded until the 1700s; and during the latter part of the 18th century commercially printed messages started to become available.
  8. In the 1840s, Esther Howland began making and selling pre-made Valentines greetings with scraps of lace and ribbon around colorful pictures. It earned her the moniker “Mother of the Valentine.”
  9. Though most of the marketing we see near Valentine’s Day seems to be aimed at men, women purchase as much as 85% of Valentine’s Day cards.
  10. In some countries, mass weddings are held on February 14th. It is also said to be the most common wedding anniversary date in the Philippines.

Today we celebrate Valentine’s Day with flowers, chocolates, or other tokens of affection. But Saint Valentine’s Day was originally a day set aside by the church to commemorate a man (or three) who lost his life because he was being evangelical. It was not associated with romance until several hundred years after his death. And was not widely celebrated as a romantic holiday until centuries after that.

love heart romantic romance
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The point is that holidays can evolve, no matter what they originally celebrated. Traditions develop over time and sometimes deviate between cultures, regions, etc. They can be an excellent way to showcase different cultures, even ones that are seemingly similar in your worldbuilding.

What are your characters celebrating?

Don’t Hire an Editor You Can’t Afford

Recently, there has been some bad advice floating around social media for writers. It has been called out time and time again by much better-known personalities than myself, but I still thought I’d touch on the topic here.

Writers new to the writing community can be especially vulnerable to bad advice. More seasoned writers might start to doubt their own perceptions and believe it too. It’s important that we look out for each other. Because above all, the writing community is a community. It is not a competition.

The particular piece of advice du jour is to be willing to take out a loan or find a patron in order to hire a quality editor. No. There are several reasons this is bad advice, but the first and foremost is that it implies that if you can’t afford an editor, then you’ll never be a quality writer. That’s absolute malarkey.

When someone tells you to “go for broke” in your writing, they aren’t talking about paying for editing services.

Some writers, especially those who have decided to pursue self-publishing instead of a traditional route, do hire professional editors. And professional editors who charge for their services are not the enemy. After all, they are providing a service and expect to get paid. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. It’s just not a requirement for a well-polished manuscript.

Don’t misunderstand, it’s still good to have other pairs of eyes look at your manuscript and give you feedback on ways to improve it. Not someone like a significant other, close friend, or family member–unless, of course, that person has experience and is likely to offer better constructive criticism than just “It’s great and I love you!” That’s what critique partners are for. I have already written a post about finding critique partners if you’re unsure how to connect with someone. Critique partners are invaluable and free at the same time. I strongly recommend having more than one, or more than one group even. Everyone will bring something different to the table and you’ll learn something new each time someone critiques your work or you critique theirs.

But I digress.

Do not take out a loan because you think you need an expensive professional editor. Don’t feel like you have to have a patreon account, a single wealthy patron, etc. No. There are some writers who do have those things, but they aren’t necessary for a writing career in general.

Also, don’t quit your day job to completely dedicate yourself to your art unless you can afford not to have a day job in the first place. The vast majority of authors don’t make enough off of their work to support themselves entirely. There are perennial best-sellers who can and do. They are not the rule. They are the exception, and even they will admit that. I’ve never seen a career author–not once–say that you should quit your day job to write full-time.  For most authors, writing is at best a side-hustle. A passion. Perhaps a lucrative (or not so lucrative) hobby. Because publishing one or two–or ten–novels is not a guarantee of fame and fortune. But editing the first one shouldn’t send you into immediate debt, either.

And when an agent wants to sign you, remember this: money should flow toward the author. If an agent wants to sign you, but also wants to charge you for editing services run screaming for the hills. That’s not an agent, it’s a predator and you’re the prey. Don’t do it.

Now, if you are completely against critique partners (why?) and want to self-publish then hire an editor. If you have excellent critique partners, but want to have a pro look over your manuscript too, hire an editor. I’m not saying you should never, under any circumstances, hire one. That’s madness. You do you. But do your homework first. Not all editors are created equal and not all of them charge comparably. Research is your friend.

And your research should tell you that anyone who suggests you take out a loan for their services is not the kind of editor you actually want to work with. Ever.

 

**I know and follow several freelance editors. They are not all predators to be avoided. This post is meant to be a warning against feeling like you have to pay for editing services you know you can’t afford, or that if you can’t afford them you can never be agent/publisher worthy. There are good, affordable editors out there for writers who want to hire one.**

 

A Lesson in Storytelling from Star Wars

I don’t know anybody who cheers on Darth Vader in A New Hope. He’s scary, he destroys planets, and–while he looks very cool–he cuts down our newly beloved mentor with a lightsaber. He’s the bad guy, the villain, the terror that flaps in the night–wait. That’s Darkwing Duck. Anyway, you get the picture. But here’s the catch, we don’t just love to hate him, we love him too.

Darth Vader isn’t a good guy, but by his untimely end two movies later, we’re sad to see him go. That’s the mark of a good villain. He was redeemable. And if you bring in the prequels, we can see his deterioration and understand why he made the choices he made to become the source of so much fear. It had a lot to do with the fact that he was super emo and brooding, but then his son started out the same way, so it makes sense. But I digress.

Nothing about Anakin/Darth Vader is out of left field when you know the story. It’s a natural progression. A slave boy who dreams of more is taken from his mother and trained in how to use the galaxy’s greatest power and then told he’s not allowed to love, fear, or hate anything. Naturally, this becomes a problem sometime after puberty. Then when he fears losing his lady love, his fear drives him to make questionable decisions. I know, it’s a very simplistic view of what happened, but when you break it down to the bare minimum, that’s his character arc. And it’s very relatable. We’ve all made questionable decisions out of fear, and I’m almost positive we’ve all made questionable decisions when it comes to whoever we’re attracted to. Just saying. It’s like a rite of passage. His decisions just had higher stakes than looking like an idiot in front of the whole class/school/whathaveyou.

So he’s relatable, and because he’s relatable he’s redeemable. And even while we hate him, we can’t help but be a little in awe of him. And if you don’t believe me, go to a Disney park and look at the line just to meet him.

As writers, our villains should be relatable on some small level. Leave some smidgen of a chance of redemption, even if you know they would rather die than take it. Give them dimension. Sure, you can make them terrifying. You can make them powerful. But make them whole in the process. Nobody is ever just power and fright. At some point, they got that power. At some point, they wanted to be frightening. You don’t have to give the entire backstory in an info dump, but leave traces of it. Leave hints and trust the readers to be smart enough to follow the breadcrumbs.

The lesson here is that in stories, and in my experience life itself, nobody is all good or all bad. Everybody struggles with internal demons of some kind. It’s how they face those demons that makes them protagonists or antagonists. While this post has solidly focused on making sure your villain is more than just one big ball of scary, the same rule applies to your protagonist. They have to be given the opportunity to make bad decisions. Because people do. And they can make the right decision or they can make bad ones and then redeem themselves.

Luke was a whiney brat who just wanted to go to Tochi and score some power converters. He chose to train with Ben Kenobi and Yoda to become a Jedi. He found out who his father was and was given the opportunity to go dark and rule the galaxy. He turned it down. And when he shows up at Jabba’s place dressed in all black, we all know that some questionable things happened since we last saw him, but we trust him to still be at least mostly on the light side.

I could do this for every major character in the story. And before you go pointing out, “But Palpatine!” I’m going to stop you. I watched the movies. I haven’t read the bajillion and one books and comics and read all the fan theories the internet has to offer. I don’t know his backstory, but I’m pretty sure if I did I would find reasons he became a Sith. Because nobody is all good or all bad.

Except for Leia. She’s perfection.

Just kidding.

Sort of.

Plotter vs. Pantser

person writing on white book
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If you are newer to the writing scene, you might have no idea with either of the words in the title of the posts actually mean. Or maybe you do know, but don’t know which one you are yet. That’s fine. Really.

For those still scratching their heads, a plotter is someone who likes to plot out their story ahead of time. Notes, outlines, character profiles, etc. A pantser has an idea and more or less just sits down in front of the keyboard and starts telling the story. They fly (or write) by the seat of their pants, hence “pantser”.

The first manuscript I ever wrote was a pantser project. I wrote one chapter per week and when I finished one chapter, I usually didn’t know what would happen in the next one. I finished the project, which was good. I proved to myself that I could finish an entire manuscript. It sounds like a small feat until you have to do it.

I didn’t sit down at the keyboard and decide to “pants” the project. I just didn’t know where to start, so I started writing. This works for a lot of people. I know some very talented writers who choose to write this way all the time. There is nothing wrong with it if it works for you. It…didn’t entirely work for me.

My next project, I plotted out a few things. I didn’t make a whole outline or character profiles, but I certainly had an idea of what would happen at the end of the story and all the major plot points that would lead there. A writing partner of mine calls working like that being a “plantser”. That project went better. It didn’t go perfectly, but it went better.

For my next project, I’m doing a lot of plotting. I have a lot of notes. I have character profiles. I have a road map to keep me from getting distracted from, well, the plot. I don’t know if this will improve my writing or decrease the time it takes for me to finish the first draft. Only time will tell. But I want to try it because I’m still trying to figure out what works for me as a writer. I’m experimenting with my process until I find my groove.

Let me know which one you are in the comments!

 

I’ll Have What He’s Having

I have two young sons. The elder of the two is five. The younger is not quite two. And I will readily admit that I learn just as much from them as they do from me. One of the ways I learn from them is to see my own behavior mirrored back at me in undeniable ways and being able to see it from a more objective perspective.

My younger son, though blessed with a very independent personality, is more dependent on me than my five-year-old. Kid #1 is old enough to dress himself, brush his teeth on his own (though not as thoroughly as I prefer so I usually end up helping anyway), carry his own backpack, read, do simple math, etc. Kid #2 desperately wants to do all that, but is still only a year old and has a lot of skills left to master. As you can probably guess, this means Kid #2 gets a lot of attention. I try to make sure I’m fair to Kid #1, but he usually thinks his brother gets more attention than he does. There are some days that he’s probably right.

Whenever Kid #1 begins to feel like he’s getting shorted on his time at center stage, he begins to do things more like his brother does, thinking this will force me to bestow more attention on him in order to help him. He pretends to not know things, like how to talk (which, I assure you, he does well and with a vocabulary far beyond what is expected of someone his age). This always hurts my heart a little and so I talk to him about it. I remind him that while his brother needs help doing a lot of things right now, the truth is that all Kid #2 wants is to be just like Kid #1 in every way. It’s his goal. And while the attention I give Kid #2 is usually to help him learn new skills and achieve new milestones, the attention I give Kid #1 is different. I get to laugh and listen to his abundance of terrible pun jokes. I get to cheer him on while he plays sports or listen to him tell me all about the newest thing he learned by reading a book.  I cherish that. It’s so wonderful that I can’t really describe it. I remind Kid #1 that he’s fun, kind, incredibly intelligent, and imaginative. I tell him he shouldn’t disregard all of that by trying to be more like his younger brother just so he can feel like he’s the star of the show again like he was when he was an only child. I often say, “Don’t throw away what is special about you because you’re trying to be like someone else. Being you will always be more than enough for me.”

And yes, this is a conversation we’ve had a lot. More than I’d like. But I can’t blame him for not being ready to take it to heart. After all, I know plenty of adults (sometimes including me) that struggle with this. In fact, I think we all have those moments where part of us just wants so badly to be like someone else, sometimes anyone else, that we forget about what makes us special to begin with. What makes us unique. What makes us, us.

The next time I give that advice to Kid #2, I’m going to write it on my heart as well. I don’t need to be like anyone else. I just need to be me. And in case you need to hear it, I’m telling it to you too. Don’t throw away what is special about you because you’re trying to be like someone else. You are enough just as you are.