Thursday, July 31, 2014

Baby Evil Writers 101: There Is No Muse

Baby Evil Writers 101: There is no Muse
Julie Butcher

If one more person tells me they didn’t write today because the muse is gone on vacation I’m going to smack them hard.

There is no muse. Let me repeat myself, there is no muse.

The only thing there is, is to put your butt in the chair and open the document and think about the story until the words hit your fingers. There is self-control. There is hard work. There is stubbornness. There is a brilliant mind that wants to fritter away time on twitter and facebook and favorite TV shows. There is not, however, a freaking fairy that bops you on the head until they make a hole and shove a story into your brain.

Stress saps creativity. Hunger sucks main characters dry. Illness makes your story about bodily fluids which is nasty. But the straight truth is that you are your own muse and that if you don’t take care of yourself and eat and drink and sleep—you won’t write.

Quit making excuses that are the equivalent of telling a cop that you weren’t speeding, the car was going too fast because and invisible Bigfoot had his hairy appendage on the gas pedal. Listen to me, we both don’t believe you. Not one little tiny bit.

If you believe yourself about the muse thing then you are in big trouble. Also you should probably seek professional help.

I know people who were going through horrible experiences in their lives and yet still managed to write and publish a story. If you want to be paid money, then it is a job and sometimes jobs are hard WORK. If it were all fun and games then you would get no money and it would be called PLAY.

We don’t believe in a muse. We believe in work. If you want to keep fooling yourself, then go away from me. When I don’t write it is because I am stressed or lazy or sick. There is no invisible force stopping my fingers. There is only me, on the couch watching television. Sometimes there is me, working in the garden. But you know what? I know what I’m doing. I don’t blame others for me being lazy or evasive.

Suck it up people. Be honest with yourself, and get your butt in the chair.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Know WTF You're Talking About

This post is going to be a little more anecdotal than usual, and also ranty, but bear with me.

A little while ago I read a book and found one of the non-protagonist main characters was said to have bipolar disorder. I started cringing but tried to keep an open mind.

I basically didn't stop cringing.

It was one of the more offensive portrayals of mental illness I've read in recent memory, perhaps because it seemed the author tried to humanize this character. The trouble was that she was clingy, volatile, irrational, conniving, paranoid, and downright abusive to the one person who was supposed to be her friend (which other characters pointed out). That would be fine--lots of people are like that, including bipolar people--if the explanation given for her behavior didn't boil down to, "she's off her meds."

Hey, sure, when I'm having an episode (which, contrary to fictional depictions of the disorder, are just that: EPISODES--they occur between periods of fairly stable moods), I can be irrational and volatile and paranoid. But the core of who I am--loyal, compassionate, smart, creative--is still there as well. I don't suddenly start drowning kittens when I'm manic or depressed.

ALL of the horrible abusive traits this character had--the reader was told repeatedly in the text--were symptoms of her bipolar disorder when she was off her magical meds. Bipolar disorder figuratively turned her into a monster who was possibly capable of murder.

I am willing to bet money that the author looked up bipolar disorder on Wikipedia, read a few possible characteristics, and left it at that. And if I can get pedantic for a moment, one of the reasons I believe this is because the character was supposedly on unspecified "antidepressants", which five minutes of reading or any doctor will tell you is a risky proposition (had the author said "mood stabilizers", I would've given her the benefit of the doubt). Further, nothing about the character suggested she was depressed or manic; while she was "off her meds", if anything she came across as being in a constant mixed episode. Probably because the plot required it, not because the writer knew what a mixed episode even is. The writer could have, in fact, simply passed off *all* this character's personality flaws as "because she's on her period" and it would've been just as believable.

Julie, in her last post, absolutely has an excellent point about not getting caught up in the details; my caveat would be that you absolutely have to know in detail what you're talking about when you are portraying people who could be damaged by your depictions of them.

Don't take on mental illness if your only exposure to it is the bad guy of the week on Criminal Minds or Wikipedia. Spend some time reading from the perspective of those you're writing about, even if they're secondary characters. Diversity is important, but so is NOT contributing to stigma.

As writers, we often say the story is most important and as long as that gets across, it's okay to fudge certain things. But "it's just a story" is not a defense when you're contributing to the overall narrative that makes life more difficult for marginalized groups. Daily, people like me have to push back against the idea that our mood disorders makes us dangerous, and that the only way to function and not be violent is to medicate (and that pills are magical). Mine is an illness with an 85% survival rate, in part because it's so isolating and stigmatized, which makes it extremely difficult to reach out for help. Fiction that contributes to stigma and inaccuracies stacks more weight on everyone's shoulders, and it makes for lazy fucking storytelling.

The "story" does not exist in a vacuum; it exists in a world where all things are not equal.

It's your responsibility to educate yourself about people in the world around you and to question your own depictions of them. It's on you, the writer, to get shit as accurate as possible and make an ATTEMPT to know what the fuck you're talking about.

And editors? Beta readers? Same thing to you. Because I've no doubt half a dozen people saw this book (and books like it) before it was published and not a single person called out an offensive depiction of mental illness. Whether it's a plot hole or inaccurate medical information, you should be asking the writer to know what the hell he or she is talking about as well.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Baby Evil Writers 101: About Research

Baby Evil Writers 101: Research
Julie Butcher

I’m sure that all of you baby evil geniuses have heard the importance of doing your research. You’ve heard horror stories about how published authors have been lambasted in public because of some little detail they had gotten wrong in their story. They get emails and people leave reviews trying to publically embarrass and humiliate the writer.

I have met writers who have gotten so deep into research that they have still been writing the same book twenty years later. Research is a deep pit that turns into an escape from what you really need to do—write. You can trick yourself into feeling productive by finding out what herb they used on lamb in Scotland in 1354. In reality, this tidbit isn’t important to the story. What the characters are doing and talking about during the meal is important.

Just write the story. Mark in red the things that you are not sure of and MOVE ALONG. You can google anytime. When in doubt, absolutely do not spend hours and hours and days trying to verify a fact. That is the time for a vague description.

Instead of saying:
He held a Sig Sauer P227 Carry Nitron. Its matte black handle fit perfectly in his hand. The 14 Round extended magazine had enough ammunition to take me down before I’d run a block. That was too much death for a seven inch weapon.

He had a gun—matte black and lethal. Adrenaline made the skin on my face feel tight, and my legs twitched with the need to run. I wasn’t ready to die.

Because no matter how much research you do, someone out there actually has a Sig Sauer P227. If you describe it perfectly, they’ll catch you on having the shell casing flying out the wrong way. Granted, that took me maybe ten minutes of research but the thing is it does not matter. There is a gun. Guns kill people. Your character thought he/she was going to die. It really is not important what kind of gun he had. The emotions generated by the sight of any gun will send adrenaline to limbs and cause a heart to beat faster.

Don’t get stuck in the details. Get deeper into the emotions. Every ten or twenty or thirty minutes of research are words that are never put onto a page.

Also it is a lame excuse to not write.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Letting it Stew

One of the the things I like to do when I'm not writing is to help other people who think they want to give this particular kind of crazy a try. Because of this, I run into a lot of preconceived ideas about authors, how they write, and what goes into making a book. Most of them are dead wrong but understandable too. Let's face it, until I jumped into this author thing with both feet I thought books sort of magically appeared on bookshelves everywhere. 

It took a long time to sort me out. So I try to be pretty gentle sorting out expectations that fall a little short of the actual experience.

One of the things I tell new writers that seems to be particularly shocking to them is that after you write it, you need to put it away and forget about it for awhile. New authors are long on enthusiasm, but often short on patience. They want the book in bookstores, and they want it as soon as possible. I get that. I had the same problem. 

But I stand by the rule. Put it away. Don't look at it, and if you can help it, don't think about it. Usually, I suggest/instruct/plead with them to write something else while they're waiting. For good reason. Newly finished manuscripts are a source of pride, obsession, and a lot of love. You worked hard on it. You finished it. You've earned the right to fawn a little. But before you move onto editing, you better fall the heck out of love...and fast. 

The best way to do that is to fall in love with something else. 

In the same way that smokers cannot smell the odor in their clothing. (I smoked, it's true) an author who is still living inside their story cannot see it. The blinders are on. To get a realistic view you have to move out, quit smoking that book, and completely reboot your senses again. 

You have to clean your pallet.

In the same way that you can't see your ex clearly until you've fallen in love with someone new, well you get it. Let the first book stew. Let the story percolate and stale. But if possible, write something new, something more brilliant and just as engaging. Love it. Then put it away and go back to the first book ready to kick ass and take names.

Editing will hurt a lot less too, if you've got a new shiny in a drawer somewhere that you know is better anyway. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

Leave of absence

Hello, minions!

It's time for me to take off for a bit and birth some mini-evil into the world. Yes, my due date is rapidly approaching and I hear these baby things require a lot of attention at first, so I've decided to do that. She won't turn out evil if I don't mold her from the beginning.

In preparation for the impending arrival of mini-evil, I've done the following:
- Finished up editing a novella and submitted it to the publisher
- Arranged for someone else to update my website
- Sniffled tearily at the very evil baby blanket and octopus toy knitted/crocheted by the lovely (and evil) ELEW members.

I feel like I've accomplished much.

Be evil while I'm gone... and if you have any last minute parenting tips for a slightly panicked first time mother (uh, I'm asking for a friend...), leave them in the comments!

See you all in a few months!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Write What You Love, Reprise

So, I sat down to write my evil blog post and the first thing I did, as always, was to read the last post on Evil Writers. Just to check the pulse of things, so to speak.

And then I realized I was going to have to come clean and follow up what Seleste is talking about with my own little story.

I came into urban fantasy sort of by accident. When I wrote Between I meant it to be what I think of as contemporary fantasy - real world characters who also have fantastical adventures. In all honesty, I hadn't read much urban fantasy at that point and had to give myself a crash course to see what I'd stumbled into. I found a lot of great books that I very much enjoyed.

I also came along at a very bad time. For whatever reason, the urban fantasy and paranormal bubbles have burst, or so our agents and editors are telling us. Sales figures seem to support this. The sad truth of this, for me personally, is that the Books of the Between have done okay, but not as well as the publisher hoped. It's still up in the air whether The Nothing (Book #3 of the Between) will get picked up for contract or not.

As for the book I just turned into my agent, a paranormal mystery called Dead Before Dying, my agent has warned me that it probably won't sell. Not only is it paranormal, which is on the downslide, but the main character is a female of a certain age, also an unpopular choice on my part.

I've loved this book since the idea for it first drifted into my head and I'm in love with it still, so this is a hard truth to hear.

But you know what? I'm glad I wrote it. I would have written it anyway, knowing what I know now. And I love The Nothing and I'm still going to finish it, even if the much hoped for contract never materializes. I have plans for it, in fact. If there's no contract, then it will be time to go Indie. I promised my readers a third book, and I aim to deliver.

Writing completes me. It fills some gaping empty place in my soul. Unfortunately, the things I love are maybe not what most of the world wants to read. And so there we are.

I'm always mystified why people who don't love writing get into a business that is a morass of rejection, heartbreak, ever shifting markets, and damn hard work. Success is an illusion and I have a feeling you never quite get there, even if you do hit the top of the charts. The wheel of fortune is always turning, and what is up will come down.

So you'd damn well better find a happy place somewhere that is independent of agents and editors and markets and reviewers and maybe even readers. I'm still working toward this. There are spells where I want to rail against my fate, to wish I loved different things, or was born at a slightly different time.

And then I remember that there are all sorts of doors open to me now. I've got a lot more books to write. Maybe one of them will put me on the upswing of the wheel of fate. Or not. Maybe I'll accumulate a whole lot of drawer manuscripts that nobody will ever see. Maybe they'll be magically discovered after I die. Or they'll be burned to the ground and nobody will read them.

And maybe none of that matters. As long as I'm alive and have a functional brain and the ability to move my fingers over the keyboard, I'll be writing.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Who Do You Write For?

I'm sure most writers have heard it at least once. Chasing trends is bad. Basically, the rule goes like this: once it's a trend, it's already on the way out. Once something becomes really popular, everyone and their brother jumps on that bandwagon, and suddenly it crumbles under the added weight. 

So, if you're not trying to write to the trends, how do you decide what to write? 

That's where the world gets dicey, my friends. See, the problem is a lot of people write to trends, not because they are trendy but because they genuinely like the genre/trope/whatever. So the old adage of write what you love doesn't necessarily work here. Yes, you should write projects you're passionate about, but when the thing you love happens to be vampires/dystopian/whatever-the-hell-else-was-huge-and-then-dead you have to accept that said project may never sell. 

And that's okay. 

Yes, you read correctly. If you have a passion project, by all means, get it on paper, whether or not it will sell right now. Most trends are cyclical. As long as you're willing to hold onto that project until the next cycle, you're fine. Or if you don't care if it sells, you're also fine. So, yes, write what you love...

Unless writing pays your bills. 

No pitchforks, please. Obviously professional authors can still write what they love, but we also have to be more aware of the limitations of that. We also have to be aware of contracts. Sometimes a multi-book series that starts as a passion project doesn't end up that way by book 3, 4, 5...12. But it's still a contract, it's still a book you have to write--whether you want to or not. In that particular case, you kind of have to trick yourself into believing you're writing it for yourself. 

Perhaps it's a character you've been dying to get on paper. Or a setting you've always wanted to visit. Or even a catch-phrase you finally have the perfect place to use. Find the thing in the book that is for you and hold onto it for dear life.

Yes, writer friends, write for yourself, even if you're writing for someone else. 

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Baby Evil Writers 101::Critiques

Baby Writers 101: Critiques
Julie Butcher

You can write until the cows come home but you won’t get professionally published without critique partners. There I said it. Lately it has come to my attention that there are a lot of people who claim to want to be professional and yet will not put their writing out there for comments. You guys have a lot of excuses not to have critique partners and editors and I’m going to debunk them one by one.

1.      I’m afraid that someone will steal my idea.

Seriously? You can give thirty writers the same premise and they’ll come up with thirty different stories. Not one of them will be your story. If this doesn’t give you peace of mind, the fact that your work has a copyright the very second you put your words on a document should settle you down. (Okay it does not have a copyright because it is in your head so there’s another reason to put your butt in the chair and write.)

There are no new stories. Every bit and piece has been written somewhere in time. You really need to chillax and get some constructive criticism of your work or you might as well quit right now and keep your secret storyline in your head. It will never be good enough because fresh eyes can see what you cannot. Your mind tricks you into believing that what is in your head is also on the page and that is a lie.

2.      This story is my baby and it will break my heart if people don’t love it. (whine-whine)

They won’t. At least not until you have the critiques and fix all of the plot holes and purple prose. Even then only a small percentage will love your work. Even New York Times bestselling authors have a limited supply of fans. Award winning doesn’t mean that every single person on the planet loves their stuff. Go and look. Even the huge names have horrible reviews. Get used to it because if you want to be a professional, you’ll have to suck it up and smile. The only people who are important are the ones who do love and support you.

Also unless you pulled that manuscript out of a private area of your body IT IS NOT A BABY. It is a manuscript, a story, a book. Get a grip people the pages are not sentient. Also the next time I hear someone say this I am going to smack them in the head because they are on my last nerve.

3.      Even if I get a critique I don’t trust that person. I can’t get rid of Character X, I just can’t!

Sometimes critiques are stupid. Sometimes they are downright mean. Sometimes they are worthless. But even a broken clock is right twice a day. If you have four beta readers and three of them hit a certain spot and go, “Oh, heck no!” then you should listen. Never limit yourself to one critique from other writers.  

Eventually you’ll find a group of other writers that get you, and you get their work, too. You might go through a hundred people to find four. Do not give up. There are knowledgeable people out there. You’ll find that although some writers are at a newer level than you, they still can point out plot holes and make valid points. In return, when you return the favor and critique for them, you get reminded not to make those newbie mistakes. I’ve learned more from critiquing for others than I ever would have on my own.

You absolutely must put yourself out there. Even if it feels like people are hating on you. When you get a critique back, and want to scream or yell or lash out via email, stop. Wait a day or two or three and think about it. Whoever read for you gave you their valuable time and experience. They gave up having dinner with their family or their favorite television shows. They gave up hugging their children to help you so don’t be a butthead.

Then thank them for helping you and go and fix your story.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

"Anonymous" Review

It's not what you think. You see, last night my writing group had a movie night. I've posted over and over on the benefits of having a writer's group, and I believe that. My group, in particular, rocks the awesome. Of course, I might be a little biased there.

Anyway, the movie we were waiting with baited breath for is Authors Anonymous. Check out the trailer here and you'll have an idea why.

I probably don't need to tell you that the flick was full of cliche characters, stereotypes and less than gentle barbs aimed at the author's unusual and often quirky psyche. All of the above is true. Despite that, I enjoyed the  hell out of the viewing. I laughed, I cried a little, I shifted uncomfortably when I recognized a painful grain of truth inside the satire. A good time, if a somewhat awkward time, was had by all.

So, despite the cliche, the movie is a fun to watch peek at the crazy that sometimes clings to authorly types.
If you are a bit sensitive about stereotypes, however, it might not be for you. They hit them all with a big ol hammer of obviousness.

I do wish that a few more of the characters were likable. Even a little likable. I wanted more than the one obvious hero's admirable if awkward journey to redeem all authors a little bit. I wanted more of them to rise above, and really, they barely pulled that off with the protagonist. Watching a writer's group turn on each other and slowly implode was painful, funny as hell, but still a bit hard on the psyche.

So my review would be four stars out of five, if you're an author. Really, non writerly types will probably find little to love here. Authors Anonymous reminded me of a Christopher Guest film, without Guest's genius. It's a smile-worthy mockumentary but the target audience is pretty narrow.

And if you have a hard time poking fun at yourself, you might end up really cringing/hating this one.

If, like me, you enjoy a little discomfort and can suspend offense for the sake of humor, you'll probably really enjoy it.

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