On Hiding, Taking Care of Oneself, and stepping down from Podcastle

Hey, remember back in December when I said I was going through some stuff and at some point I’ll write a blog post about it? Looks like today’s the day. I wrote about it at my dayjob’s blog entitled Peace in the Changing“.

For those who want the shorter, less Christianese, tl;dr version: I had an early miscarriage back in December. It happened smack dab in all the Ferguson and New York turmoil. And it pretty much messed me up good.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the writing community, it’s that we are serious when it comes to taking care of ourselves mentally. When I realized I was at a point I couldn’t deal, the first thing I did was talk with a couple of professionals (read: doctor and chaplain). I also gave myself permission to lay low…real low. Played a lot of video games. Read a lot of books. Stayed away from Twitter, although I did a little interaction on Facebook. I also realized that there were a lot of things I were doing that were just too much for me, so it was time for me to let them go. One of those things were, sadly, Podcastle.

So if you listen to today’s podcast, you’ll hear that, yes, I’ve decided to step down as Associate Editor. A bummer, because I looooooved being part of the Podcastle family. But it was a good time to go–Dave and Anna are also stepping down (and if you haven’t heard Dave’s love letter to Podcastle readers, please, have a listen. It reduced me to a puddle of gooey tears, but in a good way this time). It’s been an awesome run. I had so much fun at Podcastle, and it gave me insight into the editorial process. I still might do a narration every now and then, but for now, I’m gathering the little time I have to redirect it towards finishing the novel, and I’m getting close. I’m getting surprisingly close.

At some point, I’ll talk more about the miscarriage. Yes, yes, I know, there’s a culture of silence that should be broken about it. But you know what? I don’t feel like talking about it in public yet. As I said in the blog above, I’m still healing. But you know what I would like? Stories about ‘onlies’. I think that would help tremendously. 

Also, let me tell you this. My son has been an absolute trooper during this time. He’s been sweet, helpful and caring. Just like his father. Who has also been absolutely wonderful. I’m going to slip back into Christianspeak and say that God has blessed me with two wonderful guys who took good care for me. And it was God who kept me sane throughout that entire time. Well, okay, there was that moment when I had that breakdown on Christmas Eve…but there were reasons for that…ask me about it offline if you want to here me go off on a nice long rant).

So anyhoo, that’s all I wanted to say. I’ve been easing myself back onto Twitter again, slowly. And I’ve been writing a lot. A LOT. So thank you all for being patient. Oh, and other thing about taking care of myself? Shorter blog posts.

“The Danger of the False Narrative” up on Jim Hines Blog

Jim Hines has been running a series of guest blog posts on Representation in SF/F. And oh, hey, look at that, here’s my contribution on black representation, “The Danger of the False Narrative“. Check it out, and definitely check out the other essays on there too.

Oo, short post. I should do this more often.

ETA: Oh, and I updated the nonfiction section of my “LaShawn’s Works” page to include links to this and other guest blog posts I’ve done. Because, yeah, I did those things. Also I suck at updating things.

ETAA: Well, no, I don’t suck. I just forget and…crap…this was supposed to be a short post. Never mind. Forget this. You’re not reading this. YOUUUUUU ARE NOT READING THISS…..

::performs handwavy gestures::

::runs off::

LaShawn’s 2014 Year in Review

So, um…stuff happened in 2014. Lots of stuff. Some good. Some bad. Probably the worst of it was during December. Don’t worry. The boy is fine. Hubby is fine. I, physically, am fine. My mental health…still in recovery mode.

It’s why it appeared that I dropped from social media, particularly Twitter and Facebook, during November and December of last year. Too much for me to deal at that point. There’s a few people who knew what’s going on and been walking with me and my family through it (to use a Christianese term). At some point, there will be a blog post going up that goes more into it, but it’s still a little raw right now. Sorry for the vagueblogging.

That said, I’m doing better. Not great, mind, but better.

So then, how did 2014 fare for my writing?

Well, that year saw my most popular story to date, 21 Steps to Enlightenment (Minus One). Seriously, I had no idea how many people would love this story. So much so, it made 3rd place in the Strange Horizons 2014 Readers Poll. How crazy is that? I wasn’t expecting that to happen–I was just having fun with spiral staircases.

Interestingly, a month after 21 Steps came out, my other short story, Sun-Touched, was also published. That one dropped like a stone in water. I’m still puzzling over it, because I would consider that one the more ambitious story. I was trying hard to push myself out of the fantasy box and stretch my imagination. But ah well. Ultimately, I have no real control whether a story is liked or not. The only thing I can do is to keep writing and putting stories out there for people to read.

That grew more challenging in 2014 when I moved to full-time work. Writing during a set time period dwindled to writing in short bursts. I’ve already written about that, so I’m not going to rehash it. Nowadays, I’m taking the advice of Jeff VanderMeer in his awesome book Wonderbook: write whenever I can, however I can, using the least obstacles to get my words to the page. (And here’s a plug–if you’re a writer, get Wonderbook. Get it now. Omigosh it’s so AWESOME.) Currently, my writing media is 8×5 notepads. Not as daunting as full spiral notebooks and easier to carry. I write at home. I write at church. I write during breaks at work, when I’m waiting on the phone, when I’m cooking dinner (I’m simmering chicken korma curry as I write this up at hand). Evenings I enter my handwritten work into Scrivener, rinse, repeat.

I grant you, it’s slow–work has gotten extremely busy for me, and there are days when all I can get down is ten words. But I’ve made it a rule now that I write something–anything–every dayIt may be only a tidbit, but get enough of those going and…well, in September, I was able to finish the first draft of a new short story, which was something I didn’t think I could do. Right now, I’m working on the second draft of another story. And I’m still working on Willow.

So, writing wise, 2014 was a year of changes, even for my writing. I’m hoping they’re good changes though, in that it’s forcing me to write tighter and better. We’ll see how it goes this year. And, just to remind you, 21 Steps to Enlightenment (Minus One) is eligible for awards. Let’s see how far this baby goes!

LaShawn’s 2013 Year in Review

Looking back on 2013, it feels like I didn’t have much to say.

That doesn’t mean I wasn’t busy. I’ve been chugging along on Willow and, for the first time, I’ve had alpha readers chime in on how things fit together. Sometimes it felt like one step forward, two steps back, and there have been other times when I wonder if it’s all worth it, but the story is getting more and more streamlined. As of this writing, I’m 60% done.

I think this whole year, writing-wise, was learning how to write more productively and more quickly. I’m also learning the hard way to get the words on the page and not worry about making them perfect. Spending less time being stuck on things and more on using placeholders to get an idea of what I want, then coming back to it at another time.

Publishing-wise, I only had two items published in 2013, my flash story “Ebb and Flow” at Daily Science Fiction and my short story, "There Are No Wrong Answers" in the anthology What Fates Impose. The former I’ve been shopping around for a couple of years, the latter I wrote in a month and was immediately accepted. I had fun with both. 2014 will have more publishing news from me, the most notable being my short story, "21 Steps to Enlightenment (Minus 1)" appearing in Strange Horizons on February 3. Strange Horizons, y’all!!!! It’s going to be awesome. Another short story, "Sun-Touched" will appear in Kaleidotrope sometime next year. This would be my second time published in this magazine, but online this time. There will also be some new poetry from me showing up next year. Details will be forthcoming.

The biggest news I had this year, though, was becoming Associate Editor at Podcastle. I’ve been listening to Podcastle ever since they debuted in April 2008, but I never thought that one day I’d be slushing stories and narrating for them. And thanks to all the generous donations from the Metacast they did in October, looks like we’ll be continuing into 2014. We could still use your support, though, so definitely contribute what you can.

What does 2014 hold? I don’t know. What I do know is I want to communicate more. Well, yeah, yeah, there’s this whole writing thing. But it’s not about that. I want to get in touch with people more. Talk to them more. Have conversations more. Heck, I want to write on this blog more. Make myself a little more vulnerable.

As I’m writing this, Neil Gaiman’s latest blog post popped up on my newsfeed about him taking a social media hiatus and doing more writing and blogging. I’m pondering that. It feels that I’ve grown too dependent on social media. I pass along links and memes I like, but I don’t do much speaking.

It feels like I don’t have much to say.

I think I’ll use 2014 to find my words again.

Outlining and Using [insert placeholder here] to write faster

Last year around this time (was it really last year?) I was spazzing out on my writing. It felt like it was taking me forever to do things. And then, I got the revelation to trust my words. I decided to hold off on any new short story writing while I worked on Willow. It’s been a year, and I’m now halfway through. I’ve been workshopping Willow to a new writer’s group I’ve been attending, and that has been super effective.

Well, a couple of months ago, I was asked to submit a short story to an anthology that had the deadline of April 1. It just so happened that I had a story idea I thought would fit perfectly with the anthology’s theme. The only thing was, it wasn’t written out. All I had was a scene and a vague idea of the format I wanted to use, and that was it.

Usually, when I do a story, I write it out first, sit on it a bit while I research, write a second draft, sit on it while I do more research, then fine tune fine tune fine tune until I reach a point where I get sick enough of the story to stop working on it and send it to beta readers. This time,I decided to try something new.

Instead of writing out the story and figuring out what needed to be done, I would outline, research and finally write the story. In that order.

This was inspired by Writing Excuses podcast, specifically the episode where Mary Robinette Kowal showed her writing process, from Brainstorming to outlining to writing. This is similar to Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method, another style of outlining, but up to this point, I haven’t really tried it, mainly because I’m an organic writer, someone who likes to figure out the style of the story as I write. For the outlining style, basically, I wrote out the main idea of my story, then expanded it to a synopsis, then expanded that to a scene-by-scene outline. I used the outline to figure out what to research, then adjusted the outline to add in what I learned from my research. I then wrote the story, fine-tuned the outline from what I wrote, then used that to fine-tune the story, sent it to beta readers, got their feedback, did a final draft, then I was done.

I also tried another new writerly thing I’ve grown enamored over, which was mainly stepping up my use of placeholders. I’ve always been a writer who would sit and stare as I turn a phrase over and over in my head to get it just right. Thus, while I write really good stories, my writing tends to be very, very slow.

Within the past few months however, I’ve been using placeholders more and more, particularly while working on my novel. I find if I get stuck on something, if I don’t figure it out within a few minutes, it’s better to make a note about it and move on with editing. 9 times out of ten, when I come back to that note, I know what I want to say; sometimes, even in the process of making that note to myself.

I’m starting to use tricks, like for instance, instead of stopping my writing and searching for a character’s name, I type @@CHARACTER NAME HERE and continue writing the story. When I come back to it the next day, I search for all the @@ and plug the information in. It’s enough to get me back into the story. I also use the “Insert Annotation feature” in Word to write notes to myself, such as what feeling I want to invoke in a scene,  or “I want something that tastes like the color blue here. What tastes like blue?” If I’m not happy with a word, I highlight it in yellow. Then if a better word comes along, I can plug it in.

I know, I know, every writer knows about placeholders . Even I was using placeholders to a degree. But forcing myself to put them in if I was just diddling with a passage, in allowing myself to say, it’s okay to come back to it, just keep moving with the editing, it’s increased my writing speed. In some cases, in the course of rewriting, I may do away with the sentence altogether, which means that placeholder is no longer needed. I feel like suddenly, I have REVISION SUPERPOWERS!

I finished this short story in two months.  And I didn’t start the actual writing of the story until the second month.

I’m floored by how quickly I was able to churn this story out. Normally it would take me up to six months to do a short story. Granted, this was a 5000 word short story. I haven’t seen what would happen if I did this with a longer story. What I can say is that outlining gave me the ability to gauge what I could put into the story to approximate the world count. I’m going to try it again with another short story that has a word count of 7500 and see if I can get the same results.

I’m also trying to incorporate this into Willow. I already have an outline, and the book written. Bust instead of going back and rewriting previous chapters as I edit, I just make notes in them for me to come back to later. It makes me wince, knowing that I’ll have to do another revision pass, but at the same time, I’m making my notes more detailed, so that all I need to do is plug in those revisions in the next pass. I’m also having my book beta read, which means that those notes will tighten up the story enough that after that next revision pass, the book will be the best I could make it.

I don’t think I’ll do every story this way. I’ve got another story that I’ve written out the normal organic way, and I’m having just as much fun working on that. But I have to admit, outlining really works. I like to think it’s helping me grow as a writer. And if not [INSERT SOME METAPHOR HERE].

Edit: And whaddya know…the story sold! Look for more information soon about it.

Dealing with Conflict in Writing (Or, learning how to be bad and good at the same time)

A few weeks ago I took my son to see Wreck it Ralph. Aside from being the only person in the theater to get the Final Fantasy VII reference, I really enjoyed it and I think Daniel did too. However, throughout the movie I noticed he would bury his face in my arm and whimper at certain parts. Not the scary parts, mind, but at the strangest places, like when Wreck it Ralph meets King Candy for the first time. Or right after Ralph and Glitch bake her car. Finally, I asked him what was wrong.

"He’s gonna get in trouble!" Daniel said.

"No, he’s not," I said. "See? Look. Glitch likes her car. You have to watch and see what happens."

"Oh," he said. "I thought she was going to get upset and yell at him for making an ugly car."

And that was when I realized something. My son wasn’t scared of conflict, per se. He was scared of people getting into trouble. When Ralph ran into Candy Land even though people told him not to, he was Breaking the Rules. Which meant he would Get in Trouble, and that made Daniel uncomfortable enough that he didn’t want to watch Ralph Get Consequences.

I get it, because I am very much the same way.

Maybe it’s a first-child thing, where we were always told we were the oldest, so we have to set an example for the younger kids to show them how to do things to go the right way. Maybe it comes from being a Christian, where we hold ourselves up to such a high standard, we can’t even contemplate doing something wrong before telling ourselves it’s sin. (I tell you that verse, whatsover is pure, whatsoever is holy, whatsoever is righteous…etc etc…has made my life as a writer a tightrope). Or maybe it’s due to conflict-avoidance, something I do at every chance possible.

I want all my characters to travel the least resistance. I want them to be happy. I want them to achieve their goals the right way.

But that’s not how stories work.

I’m working on a scene in Willow now where one of my characters lies to another character. I originally didn’t do it because, hey, this character is basically a nice guy, and I really liked him. But as I edited, I realize that he wasn’t doing what he was ordered to do, which was to break up a relationship between the main characters. Which meant that he would have to lie. It makes me squeamish, because there will be consequences from this, really bad consequences.  And the guy knows it. But he does it anyway, which will mean alas, this guy isn’t as nice as I want him to be.

But that also makes him more human.

I will admit, there is a small part of me that makes me want to bury my face whenever conflict or trouble or any sort of uncomfortableness rises in my stories. There’s that part of me that cries, if she does that, she’ll have to suffer the consequences. But if there is no conflict, there’s no growth either. Characters need conflict to learn. They need to test boundaries. They need to stand up for what they believe in, even if they’ll get in trouble for it. Wreck it Ralph wanted to be treated nice, so he went outside of his game to get a medal, which was against the rules, yes, but to him, it was taking a chance to get him some respect. He suffered some dear consequences for that, but he learned a lot about himself. And by the end, we were rooting for him to succeed. That what makes a great story.

As writers, we need to show the good and the bad, the angels and the demons, the unbreakable and the rule-breakers. It’s how we connect with the characters. If you struggle with it, just tell yourself, watch and see what happens, because sometimes (though not always) it all pays off in the end. 

You can also play chaotic evil characters in RPGs, which is what I’m doing. Which is not as easy as you think. Do you know how long it took to get up the nerve to steal something in Skyrim? I mean, sure, you can put a bucket over the shopkeeper’s head, but it’s the principle of the thing…

The End of the Free Duotrope Era

Last Saturday, I returned from another zombie outing with my son to learn that Duotrope will be doing what they’ve been warning us would happen: as of January 1, 2013, Duotrope will be a paid site. Writers up and down the nets have been having their say about it, so what the heck, I’ll do so too.

I use Duotrope. Perhaps not as much as when I was a new writer, but what drew me to Duotrope was the saved search function. I could plug in genre, style, wordcount, for any written piece I wanted to submit and get a customized list of markets. Just recently I got the hang of the feature where you can run a search and exclude markets you’ve already submitted to. I found that pretty neat. I also made use of the submission tracker, which served more as a backup for me since I also keep track of my submissions through Outlook, which I have written about in an earlier post (I have since upgraded to Outlook 2007 and added a few more custom fields, like keeping track of previous markets I’ve submitted to). I mainly used Duotrope’s tracker so I could add my submission statistics to the response time reports.

But all that’s going away…or rather, as of 1/1/2013, we’ll now have to start paying for saved searches, submission tracking, the control panel, the deadline calendar, response statistics, etc. A lot of people are decrying that, saying Duotrope is charging too much per year, that limiting the response tracker will skew statistics, etc and so forth.

Me? I’m more like meh.

Since I’ve been focusing more on my novel, I haven’t been on the site all that much. I also know the market field much better now, so that I have a running list in my head of places I could send my subs to. The only time when I go on Duotrope is when I’ve exhausted those places or to see if a market is temporarily closed. I get my new market news and editor info off Twitter and other sources, I use the deadline calendar sparingly, and I don’t use the response statistics at all. And I’ll go back to using Outlook as a submission tracker. It’s probably better this way–I won’t be recording the same information in two different places.

This is not to say I won’t miss Duotrope. I think it’s a fantastic service. Personally, I think it’s ridiculous to spend $50/year on the site. If it was $20 or even $30/year, I would subscribe with no hesitation. But I’ve reached the point in my writing career where I can survive without Duotrope.

What I feel bad for are new writers. They will be the ones who would benefit from Duotrope the most, and there’s a good chance they won’t be able to afford it. Used to be, I’d suggest Duotrope as the only go-to source for market information. In 2013, I don’t think I’ll be able to do that. I can’t justify telling them to spend $50 a year on the service. 6 months, maybe, but not a full year.  Then again, Duotrope isn’t the only one giving market info. Ralan.com is still free, comes with a free monthly newsletter and can be found on Facebook. And there are tons of info on Twitter. For response times, The Black Hole at Critters.org is, surprisingly, still around, so I can report reponse times there.

Edit: Since I wrote this, a new website has opened up that looks to be serious competition for Duotrope. The Submission Grinder includes many features that Duotrope has:–a strong search engine, the ability to do submission tracking– and some features Duotrope doesn’t have, like graphs. I’ve been very impressed with the site; it’s still pretty new, so try it out.

I’ve seen some people suggest a tiered payment option where they pay for certain features like only saved searches, and I agree. The way Duotrope has things now, there’s hardly anything left free to entice new writers to pay up, and there’s nothing to keep those who are familiar with the service from staying.

With that said, though, I’m not writing off Duotrope entirely. Ferrett Steinmetz goes into more detail about this with his post “A Failure of Duotrope,  A Failure of Their Audience: Thoughts by Someone Who’s Been There”:

The lesson in this is, “If you use a service that you like, and they’re asking you to pay for it, pay them.”  Doesn’t have to be much.  Like I said, if all you can afford is $5, then pay them $5.  If you’re flat broke and would pay them if you could, well, I’ll count those intentions as good.  But the world does not run on free labor, and at some point labors of love fail to pay for the labors of the stomach.

In the future, to avoid this sort of thing, give when you can.  Stop assuming that “free” means “a buffet for you” and start thinking, “How can I reward these people for their work?”  Maybe you pay it back by volunteering at their site, or telling about it to all your rich friends, or whatever.  But stop dining and dashing, and start helping the world be a better place by rewarding those who do good things.

This is very, very true. Duotrope was indeed a site I liked so much, I contributed to it. Several times. It wasn’t much, but I felt that it was a worthwhile service. And there’s a very good chance that I would do the same thing again down the road–pay $5 to gather some good searches, and then let the subscription lapse for several months. Duotrope did say that information will be kept on file (though I don’t know how intermittent usage work with response time statistics–probably not so well, I’m guessing).

So if you want to pay for Duotrope, go ahead and do so. Granted, the way they dropped this news reminded me of the Netflix fiasco earlier this year, but it’s still a good site. And if you wish to get an annual subscription, by all means, do so. And if you don’t, try some of the other free sites above. Keep track of your subs in a spreadsheet.

Heck, we’re writers. We’re supposed to be creative about such things.