Of Words and Notes

I mentioned a lack of self-discipline in my last post, and that it is one of the things that keeps me from being the writer I want to be. Continuing with that theme, this post is about practice.

“Practice makes perfect.”
Q: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? A: Practice.”
“Practice what you preach.”

Adages about practice abound, and it just makes sense to practice what I want to be good at, but I have a mental block about practicing writing. For some reason, I feel like I have to produce something when I write, and that creates pressure, pressure that shouldn’t be there during practice. Pressure is common in performing, or in producing a finished product, but it shouldn’t be a part of practicing. Journal writing and blogging are forms of writing practice, I suppose, and I should probably count them as such, but when I sit down to practice writing fiction or poetry, I feel compelled to produce something of quality, rather than just writing in a stream of consciousness or even basic expository style.

There is no shame in writing throwaway fiction from a daily prompt. Sometimes ideas might flow and the practice might lead to something bigger; other times, I might wind up with a loosely connected bunch of words that serve no other purpose. Why don’t I think that’s okay?

I play guitar, as well, and when I practice, I usually do so off-the-cuff, improvising, launching notes into the air to fade and disappear, with no record they ever existed. Unless I’m specifically practicing for a gig, I don’t feel the need to have a product at the end of my practice. I just play to get better and enjoy it, and there’s not nearly as much inertia for me to overcome before I start playing. It’s much harder for me to get the wheels rolling when I sit down to write.

But why? Functionally, there’s not much difference between throwing notes into the air and throwing words onto the page, so why do I have such a block against practicing writing, or more accurately, why do I feel the need to produce something of value when I write, but not when I’m practicing guitar?

I think I’ve turned fiction writing into my own personal bugbear, and with my recent story publication in Edward Bryant’s Sphere of Influence, I’m forced to challenge that bugbear. I want to capitalize on the momentum of this sale, and at first I was enthusiastic, even starting a new story from scratch for a different Mad Cow Press anthology. But after only a couple of days of writing, my momentum faded, and I stopped writing the story when I hit the brick wall mentioned in the last post. I know, I know, I should continue on with the rest of the story and figure out how to deal with the brick wall later. If I were in the rhythm of writing every day (or often, at least), I think I could do that.

Hence these blog posts. I didn’t make any new year’s resolutions this year, but I did set some goals. I want to write something at least five days a week. I also want to write 1,000 words of fiction on my WIPs each week. If I combine those goals, I could write 200 words a day and meet that goal easily, but I’m not going to lock myself into just doing productive writing. Some of those five days should be simple practice, probably from a writing prompt. An extended goal is to write one short story per month in 2018. At 1,000 words a week, that’s a reasonable goal, I think.

Heck, this blog post is about 630 words already. 200 words of fiction five days a week shouldn’t be impossible.

Story Creation Phases

Below is a heavily flawed, slapdash list of phases in the life of a Stace Johnson short story.

Most of my short stories don’t even make it past Phase VIII, to be honest. I have three pieces stalled at that spot right now. Other stories make it all the way through Phase XII or XIII, only to never be submitted anywhere. Very few actually make it to publication.

I wanted to get this written down so I can manage my own enthusiasm, productivity, and expectations. Maybe I can even eliminate some of the less beneficial phases by shining this spotlight on them and consciously avoiding them. By mapping out and naming the phases, I hope to be able to identify them as I’m writing, which could help me prepare for, get through, or avoid the times when my enthusiasm is low.

Obviously, this is partially about self-discipline, especially when enthusiasm is low. Hopefully pushing that aspect into the spotlight will help me address it, too.

Writers, what are your story stages, if you have them? How do you make your way through the doldrums when you find yourself caught in them?


Phase I: Brand new story idea! Enthusiasm: high.

Phase II: Obsessive thinking about the setting, characters, and events of the story. Enthusiasm: Still high.

Phase III: Lots of typing, bringing the idea to life for the first time. Words flow pretty easily after the inertia is defeated. Enthusiasm: high, confident, determined.

Phase IV: Brick wall. The words stop flowing, the ideas suddenly seem stupid. Obsession over how to make the stupid ideas seem less stupid, and no productive output. Enthusiasm: no longer high; pretty much nonexistent.

Phase V: Write a poem! Play guitar! Write a song! Do something creative, even if it’s not part of the project. Enthusiasm: rising, but fragile and misdirected.

Phase VI: Possible solution to make the stupid ideas less stupid, obsessive thinking about how to work the solution into the existing text. Possibly some revisionist typing. Enthusiasm: varies as to how good/clever/believable the proposed solution is.

Phase VII: Harsh self judgment about the original (now stupid) idea, self doubt about talent, ability, and aptitude. Enthusiasm: dashed.

Phase VIII: Time away from the project, perhaps devoted to other creative projects. Enthusiasm: meh.

Phase IX: World-solving solution to the stupid ideas appears, casting the story in a more rosy light. Words start dribbling out. Enthusiasm: commensurate with the dribbling.

Phase X: Cruising. With the stupid ideas resolved, words flow again, and the story doesn’t look so bad. Enthusiasm: rising again.

Phase XI: Obsessive writing, close to the end, trying to get it all down in pixels before the enthusiasm dies again or the ideas turn stupid again. Enthusiasm: grim determination.

Phase XII: Completion! A shiny new manuscript has been brought into the world, but it needs to be revised. Leave the story alone for a couple of weeks, then re-read and revise. (Note: This is a dangerous time, because the process could unexpectedly jump back to any prior phase.) Enthusiasm: high, close to the end!

Phase XIII: Peer review. Submit the manuscript to a writing group for feedback and revise it accordingly, making use of the good suggestions and discarding the rest. Enthusiasm: high or low, depending on the feedback from the writing group.

Phase XIV: Submit to writing markets or self-publish. Repeat as often as necessary to get the piece published. Enthusiasm: very high, but dulled with each rejection.


 

MileHiCon 47

Hmmm … it’s gotten to the point where the main thing I use my blog for is posting MileHiCon schedules. I need to change that. There are a lot of changes afoot, and my blog can be much better utilized than it is.

Anyway, MileHiCon is around the corner again, running October 23-25 at the Hyatt Regency DTC, as usual. Here’s my preliminary schedule:

Friday, October 23, 2015, 5:00 pm
Gained in Translation — Mesa Verde C

What genre novels originally written in other languages have seen success when translated into English? This seems like a fun and fascinating panel; I’m looking forward to it.

Saturday, October 24, 2015, 2:00 pm
MHC Poetry Reading — Mesa Verde A

David Lee Summers is back as moderator for this year’s poetry panel. I will read a few of my older SF poems and hopefully I will have something new to share, as well.

Sunday, October 25, 2015, 1:00 pm
Strange Stars: How SF&F Transformed Popular Music — Wind River A
This should be a fun panel. I’ve participated on panels like this before at MHC, and they were always a blast. There is a surprising amount of crossover influence between SF and music.

I will also be participating in the Texas Hold ‘Em tournament on Saturday night at 9pm, so if you’re a poker player, come join the game!

MileHiCon 46

It’s that time of year again! MileHiCon 46 is just around the corner, taking place from October 24th through the 26th, 2014, at the Hyatt Regency Denver Tech Center, 7800 E. Tufts Ave., Denver, CO  80237. Here’s my panel schedule:

Saturday, October 25, 2014, 4 pm
Poetry Fantastique — Mesa Verde A

I will be moderating the poetry panel this year, as David Lee Summers won’t be able to make it to the convention. I will do my best, and with a panel including Laura Deal, Gail Barton, and the energetic Dr. Rob S. Rice, it should be an easy job.

Sunday, October 26, 2014, 11:00 am
Dark Net/Net Neutrality — Wind River A

This is a tech panel about current Internet privacy trends moderated by Arlen Feldman, with panelists Margaret Alia Denny, Deena Larsen, Marc MacYoung, and yours truly.

Sunday, October 26, 2014, 4:00 pm
Privacy, Facebook, and Other Social Media — Wind River B

In a similar vein, this is another tech panel focusing on privacy rights in relation to Facebook and other social media platforms. Arlen Feldman is again the moderator (sorry, Arlen, you only get one link), with panelists John Barnes, Kronda Seibert, the mysterious T. Simpson, and myself.

I hope to see some of you there!

 

On Not Being a Writer

I came to grips with something at the end of 2011: I’m not a writer.

Sure, I have some writing skills, and my thirty-odd non-fiction articles and a few published poems bear that out. But having skills is different than using them. Knowing some things about writing is not the same as writing, and that’s where I consistently fall short.  Writing is active; knowledge is passive, and knowledge fades with lack of use.

So, if I’m not a writer, what am I? I’m a husband/father/computer technician/sole breadwinner. In the past, I have also been a writer/reader/amateur musician/gamer, but in the last few years, I have engaged in precious few of those artistic and entertainment pursuits, and that lack of creativity is wearing on me.

Some of the above responsibilities are not flexible.  I can’t very well stop being a husband or father, nor do I want to. Being the sole breadwinner sometimes becomes tiring, but that’s not really negotiable. Lannette and I learned a number of years ago that her particular combination of disabilities make her incompatible with the 9-5 corporate working world, so the responsibility for regular income falls to me only.

The computer technician portion is the responsibility that I have the most control over, and still seems to intrude the most on my everyday life.  It’s my job, for one thing, but it’s also my hobby and an occasional source of outside income.  I never charge market value for my computer consulting work, not because I don’t think I’m worth it, but because I think the prices for service in the computer industry are wildly overinflated, especially compared to the worth of the machines themselves. I don’t make much from computer consulting, but I do get a good feeling from knowing that I’ve helped someone solve a problem while saving them money. That “Mr. Goodwrench” feeling only goes so far, though, and more often than not, when I have my head stuck in the side of a computer, or I’m trying to wrap my brain around some bit of confusing PHP code while the clock ticks and a client’s website delivers database errors, I find myself wishing I was doing something else entirely.

I think it’s time to cut back on the computer consulting.  I won’t drop my current web hosting and regular consulting clients, but I’m not going to take on new clients. If clients drop off for reasons of their own, I won’t look to replace them right away, if at all. I need to build some creativity and entertainment time back into my schedule, and when I get there, I need to own and enforce it.

By this time next year, I hope I can look back and say that I’ve written a few more short stories and poems, made some progress on that mythical novel, and learned to play some songs that I’ve always wanted to learn on guitar. Maybe I will have even sold a piece of fiction or two, if I’m lucky.