How to Cope with a Scary, Scary Government

I offer no defense for this country in light of the election results last week. I’m wrestling shame myself because I can’t help but wonder where else I should have spoken up or acted to change the outcome. No one is ever happy to see their candidate lose, of course, but when the winning candidate has been endorsed by a hate group, chooses a known hate-group leader to lead the building of his cabinet, and is supported by full-party control of the house, senate, and inevitably Supreme Court majority…well. The worry goes beyond fear for the strength of the economy. Everyone who is not a cis-gendered straight white male of moderate prosperity is justified in being afraid for their civil rights and their safety in the world this government could conceivably shape.

None of this is breaking news. I’m saying it here only by way of laying the groundwork for what I hope is useful to my friends who have been expressing a sense of helplessness and despair. “How do we stay informed as citizens without going crazy?” That’s what I’ve been hearing in the middle of everything. “How do we get through this?” I don’t have a definitive roadmap, but I’ve been listening hard over the last few days, and I have gathered a small collection of ideas from wiser people. Here they are, for what they’re worth.

Say “We’ll stand together,” but please don’t insist “It’s going to be okay.”

Unless you’re the above mentioned white dude, it just might not be okay this time. (Remember the Trail of Tears? The Japanese internment camps? Bad administrations can literally kill their own citizens and legal residents.) If you are a white dude, or anyone who is in a decent position to potentially weather the oncoming storm, be an ally, not a tranquilizer. Listen to why people are afraid, and in the course of listening, keep an ear out for things you can do to help people know that they’ve got support. The immediate fear that’s been emerging for many folks is personal safety, and I mean right now, not in some hypothetical worst case doomsday scenario. Here’s how you can help:

Let’s take a moment to consider non-complementarity.

The anti-harrassment guide linked above is based on the idea of non-complementary behavior having power to shift an interpersonal dynamic dramatically. When we, as humans, meet violence, the complementary (and instinctively easy) response is to push back in kind. This pattern tends to escalate confrontations, making a bad situation worse. If someone comes at us with aggression, however, and we have the strength of will to not react with fear and anger, we have a better chance of finding a peaceful path through a confrontation. Some ideas to get the non-complementarity thought process churning:

  • When you want to rage at a family member for voting for bigotry, instead, try to figure out what they’re afraid of that led them to think voting for Trump would be in their personal best interests. Remember: people who feel safe and well-fed are a lot less likely to lash out against those around them, so there might be some genuine basis of fear behind the willingness to either endorse bigotry or pretend it’s no big deal.
  • When you see stupidity and violence in the media, don’t react with angry Facebook posts. Instead, figure out what can be done to help the victims or prevent a repeat of the incident (whether it’s finding out which non-profit is set up to make a difference or writing to your representatives or showing up to form a supportive wall around someone who is at risk), and then talk about that on social media instead of spewing forth more angry fuel for the rage-fire.

Look for the helpers.

You’ve all seen this before, I’m sure, but let’s take a beat and watch it again:

Whether you’re watching the news in shock during the aftermath of a disaster, or whether you’re bracing yourself for a possible fight to simply maintain civil rights at the current level, this advice is good. Don’t waste your precious self on shouting insults down on the people whose actions infuriate you. Instead, look for the people who are doing good work and sing their praises loud and wide. Support them as you can. Emulate them as you can. Take heart and take hope from good actions. Yes, you need to be informed of what’s going on, and I’m sorry that sometimes being an informed citizen is painful, but you can make the situation a little better for yourself and others by putting as much energy as you can into hunting down the evidence of the helpers and shining light on them. Here’s one concrete idea:

  • Christmas time is here: the annual season of spending every last penny and (for some folks) borrowing a few to make the holiday special. Is there a better way to give hope and shine light on the helpers than to save a human life from terror and deprivation in the name of a loved one?

Speaking of shining lights on folks…

There’s no wrong time to champion beauty. Everyone’s day is made better when we share wonderful art, music, literature, humor, anecdotes of human goodness…you get the idea. Minorities always have to work harder to be heard, even in good times, so why not show support and solidarity by making a point of looking for great art, etc. by threatened minorities? When you find work you love, don’t be quiet about it–signal boost the evidence that these people who are in danger of being kicked to the curb are people who make the world around them better. They enrich our lives. Be the shoulders they can stand on to let their beautiful voices be heard.

How do you stay sane while staying informed right now? Be an ally. Practice the hell out of non-complementarity. Focus on the helpers. Amplify the voices of the vulnerable. A complete solution? Of course not. But I’d bet good money that you’ll feel a little calmer and a little more empowered if you work some of these ideas into your coping strategy.

Enlightened self-interest, people. It all comes back around to enlightened self-interest.

#FinalElectionThoughts

I’ve been light-handed with how much I talk about politics online this election cycle because I don’t want to get into the mud with complete strangers on the internet, but before the Election Day, here are a few things I’ll take a stand on.

You’re voting for more than the president, folks.

Laws and policies that impact you are set by your town, county, district, and state. Folks who enter politics at a local level and do well can go on to be elected for jobs with more widespread influence. Don’t half-ass your voting decisions for the small potatoes.

The information age makes educating yourself easy.

If you still don’t know what’s on your ballot, you should educate yourself: http://www.vote411.org/

If you don’t know where or when you’re voting, you should educate yourself: https://www.rockthevote.com/get-informed/elections/find-your-polling-place/

If you’ve been relying on click-bait headlines to shape your opinions, you should check the key facts informing your vote: http://www.politifact.com/

And now, for my soapbox.

I am a firm believer in what I’ve taken to calling the church of enlightened self-interest. The single pillar of my belief is that we all do better when we help one another do better. Compassion warms the giver and the receiver alike. This is not a revolutionary concept, but it’s not an intuitive one for our lizard brains, which want to see life as nothing but a zero-sum struggle for resources. Even so, I think it’s the most important belief to cultivate in ourselves, so I’ll just ask you to run your voting choices through the filters of “Who might this hurt?” and “Is this the most compassionate choice I can make?”

Finally: VOTE.

That is all.

The Madness Begins. Again.

Aaaand….once again, it’s that time of the year in which I miraculously blog more frequently than is sane because I’m avoiding doing what I’m supposed to actually be doing: working on my current NaNoWriMo project. That’s right, folks! It’s National Novel Writing Month and I’m descending into madness once again.

I’ve got a pretty clear idea of my plot, my characters, my voice, my world…it should be a fun one to write. Space hobbits. (More on that later.) And yet, what I’ve managed to accomplish in my scheduled window of time this afternoon is setting up the Facebook page I’ve been meaning to set up for a year and a half; messing around with Tumblr to once again ponder whether it’s a good social media space for me; and completely reconfiguring my writing tech.

The last one I’m actually excited about. One of my issues with writing and editing is that I work on two different machines. Most of my writing gets done on my PC because I’ve been using specific writing software and because the keyboard is bigger. Most of my computer time, however, ends up being on my work machine, since I work from home some of the time. Which means that if I want to get writing work done, I have to switch machines and deal with the antique slowness of The Beast. Sometimes that’s good, because I can’t do much else but write without crashing the machine so the distractions are minimized, but sometimes I want to be able to just duck into a coffee shop after work for an hour for a quick session, and not being able to access my files slows me down.

Some of you may be eagerly waving your hands in the air shouting, “Google Docs! Google Docs!” I am, however, distrustful of the degree of control Google already has over my content because I’m a paranoid misanthrope who fears the worst of everyone…which I might be able to get past if I had had anything other than trouble with using Docs in offline mode. I need something that’s reliably workable offline, works across incompatible operating systems, and ideally gives me something like version control.

I’ve been afraid to leave my fancy writing software (FWS) behind, but given that I am not willing to pay for two different versions of any of the FWS, I’ve had to strike out and think creatively. And in the process of chewing over this problem, I’ve discovered a tool that is ridiculously more functional than the FWS for world-building and continuity management. Friggin’ databases. I haven’t gotten comfortable enough with the code to be working sans-GUI, but I’ve been loving AirTable. For those of you who do not hover around the edges of the web-building world, this is basically a series of interlinkable spreadsheets. There are volumes upon volumes of words written on structuring data sensibly in order to avoid shooting yourself in the foot, so I’m not going to try to explain that process here, but I will say that this is hands-down the best kind of tool I’ve found for keeping track of crazy things like fictional species traits, con-lang details, character descriptions, etc. Vastly superior to any of the writing software I’ve worked with to-date, especially for series, because you can maintain a single base that works as a little personal wiki for everything in the series without having to flip between book files or worry about data integrity. Solid gold.

Having figured out the general tracking piece for all of the complex world-building stuff, the FWS had two benefits left: note-tracking and place-finding, and the solution to both is currently the same tool that I was just dissing thirty seconds ago…Google Docs. I’ve been finding that the easiest way to organize the multiple edits coming in from various sources has turned out to be a central “punch list.” This is a term from construction referring to a list of all the little fiddly things that have to be dealt with to wrap up a job, but my company uses it for website construction and I find the principle to be sound in book building. Basically, I start with an outline and just keeping adding to it: thoughts on themes I need to hit more intentionally, places I need to fix, facts that need checking, research questions I need to answer, opinions from other people that require some consideration, and so on. Instead of creating this document for the editing phase (which is what I did initially), I’m filling out the outline as I go. Each chapter gets a quick synopsis once it’s written and includes a notes section on things to revisit and comments for thoughts I want to be able to scan. Now, as long as my manuscript is labeled to be consistent with my punch list, I can use the punch list to keep track of what information is where in the book and just use “Find” to pull up the chapter in question.

That functionality removed, literally the only thing I need my actual manuscript-producing software to do is record characters. That means I can use whatever will output a format compatible with two systems: which means either .doc or .txt. Plain text doesn’t use rich text formatting like bold and whatever, but it DOES save html markup, and since I will eventually need to put a bunch of stuff in html anyway in order to format properly for an ebook, I’m really just forcing myself to produce a cleaner copy of the code while I’m writing. Pretty undistracting for me, since I work with html on a regular basis, and pretty learnable at the level I’m talking about for anyone who’s curious.  (Seriously, shoot me an email if you want a list of html codes you’re likely to need and resources for finding the rest. I have this documented for my own sanity and I’m happy to share.)

Yes, I know, moving to plain text means that I’m losing the spelling and grammar check functions, but that’s no big deal. My FWS currently actually stinks at those checks, so I have to run my stuff through Word anyway, which is just as easy. Either that, or I can buy some proprietary review software (which exists, but which I have not tried and therefore remain neutral on at the moment).

The final piece of my tech stack for this project is key for allowing me to work between machines, and it solves another problem that is easy for any writer to accidentally run into, to tragic effect: backups. (PSA: Back it up daily!) By using file-sharing software with version control (i.e., the ability to upload a new version of the file) and syncing enabled, I can keep both of my machines consistent with one another just by saving the file. I was thinking of getting super fancy and setting up a Github repo, but I looked deep inside my soul and realized that I am a remora in the tech world, not a shark, and I don’t quite have the code teeth to set that up. Still, if you can work with Git at all, the version control flexibility has some darn nifty potential, so it might be worth a try for you codeshark-writers out there.

The endless process of decision-making having been described, here’s a summary of my writing tech stack:

  • World-Building: Database GUI (AirTable, for now)
  • General Planning: Cloud-based word processing (Google Docs, for now)
  • Manuscript Writing: Plain text editor (Sublime, JEdit, etc.)
  • Editing/Review: Best tool for the job (Word, for now)
  • Backup/Version Control: File-sharing tool (Dropbox, Box, Github)

Okay. Enough procrastinating. I’ve got space hobbits to annoy.

Autumn’s Sister is live!

Autumn's Sister CoverAt long last, Autumn’s Sister is up and available for purchase! It’s been a slog. I finished the first draft of Autumn’s Sister before I had finished publishing Autumn’s Daughter, and since then, I’ve completed the draft of the final book in the trilogy, Autumn’s Exile; a couple hundred thousand words worth of episodes for a serial science fiction thing; and a novella. I don’t tell you this to brag on my work ethic, but to demonstrate that I’ve gotten some practice and storytelling experience under my belt in between drafting and editing Autumn’s Sister. This increased experience translated to waves of loathing and discouragement that made the editing process difficult to push through: I fully intended to publish this book a year ago, and you can see how well that worked out.

When I published Autumn’s Daughter, I also wrote a bit about my perspective on why self-publishing is worth doing. Two books in and two years later, I’m feeling a little more conflicted. Self-publishing is exhausting and lonely. You have to be a bit mad in the manner of Don Quixote, tilting at the massive indifference of readers with many better-marketed (and many just plain better) books to choose from. I’m not sure if I’m mad enough to keep it up indefinitely, which is why I’m going to be shopping the aforementioned novella–it’s at least worth working through the ropes of the traditional publishing industry to see if there is help and support to be had from more experienced people.

I still stand by the value of self-publishing in democratizing art and making room for more experimental work like this little oddball series. The Sidhe Diaries are a bit weird in general, especially Autumn’s Sister, which is a fantasy book focusing on a character with scant magical abilities living in the real world for most of the story. Where Niamh’s story in Autumn’s Daughter was a more typical “changeling princess” plot, Birdy’s story is about recovering from trauma in solitude. I won’t give away the ending, but I will say that my beta readers were not, by and large, pleased with how I chose to wrap up this book. I would bet that most publishing houses wouldn’t be either, and if you read it, you may be upset with me too.

But here’s the thing: I stand by this ending. I won’t explain why here, since not many of you have read it yet, but after feedback from my wonderful beta readers, several rounds of edits, and some deep contemplation…I stand by it. I hope the final book will give clarity to my choice, and in the meantime, I hope you’ll let yourself share in Birdy’s uncomfortably limited knowledge of the sidhe courts and how it frames the mayhem she’s been dragged into.

Requisite “support the author” spiel : )

  • Here’s the link to buy Autumn’s Sister. Reviews (good or bad) are very helpful in improving how Amazon understands my books and are deeply appreciated!
  • If you haven’t read Autumn’s Daughter, here’s the link to buy that one. I’ve dropped the price to $0.99 (as low as Amazon lets me go), and you can add the audiobook for $1.99. Reviews are also deeply appreciated on this one.
  • If you have the interest in being a beta reader or would like to hear about new books and other writing ventures, I’ve got a mailing list for that, and I’d love to include you.

Free Speech and Consequences

A friend of mine came under attack by a few of the dumber donkey butts of the internet. This friend had the audacity *gasp* to point out that, even if you’re not pro-Clinton, calling her a bitch is not an effective way to sell the feminist angle of your candidate’s platform. And of course, a number of trolls used this microscopic excuse to start calling my friend (and Clinton) a bitch (and worse). As if that wasn’t obnoxious enough, they then started whining about their first amendment rights being violated.

*eyetwitch*

I’m not going to touch the toxic masculinity issue with a ten-foot pole here, but with election season ramping up, I KNOW I’m going to see a large number of these mud-slinging-followed-by-first-amendment-slinging conversations popping up from people all across the political spectrum. So, for the sake of sanity and civility for all, here’s a little PSA reminding you that there is a difference between having your first amendment rights violated and being called on your aggressive bullshit.

Let’s review, for thirty seconds, what the First Amendment says.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

If we focus, for the purposes of this little case study, on only the speech aspect as it applies to making vicious comments on social media, this little piece of language can be simplified to mean something more like, “The federal government can’t stop you from talking like an asshole.”

Let’s also simplify, for the moment, the complexity of how free speech rights play out in the context of social media user agreements with different companies. The first amendment does not meant that Facebook and Twitter (who are not, surprise!, part of Congress) are necessarily required to let you shoot your mouth off, making their platforms toxic environments for the rest of the users, but they also aren’t great about kicking out the assholes because it’s not always profitable for them. You may very well be allowed to be a verbal bully by the people who are actually in charge of the rules that determine whether you’re allowed to play with the other kids on any given internet playground.

BUT…

That doesn’t mean you won’t face consequences for your actions. The same loose oversight of speech that lets you throw around words like “bitch” and “cunt” means that private individuals (also not covered under that peskily specific “Congress” label) who think your language is shitty have the right to tell you as much. If you use words in ways that identify you as ignorant or a misogynist pig, you might just get called ignorant or a misogynist pig. Surprise! If you don’t want to wear that label proudly, maybe start taking a few seconds to think about what you sound like before you post something.

You could have just thought it.

Even when you have a legitimate disagreement with someone’s statement, you may always choose to deal with it in an intelligent, thoughtful, constructive fashion. If you choose to use language aggressively and unkindly in order to force a person out of the conversation, you’re an asshole and you’re making the world just a little worse.

You don’t have to be an asshole to make your point heard, and if that’s the route you choose to go, there might just be consequences. People might point out that you are contributing slightly less to the conversation than a massive pile of excrement. They might unfriend you. They might publicly shame you for your words. And guess what? Not one of those consequences comes even close to violating your injudiciously exercised first amendment rights.

tldr; if you can’t take it, you are more than welcome to stop dishing it out.

Worry: The Salt of Imagination

There’s a quotation floating around the internet in the form of various inspirational memes, and I feel the need to respond to it.

“Worry is a waste of imagination.”

On the surface, it seems like a sweet piece of sentimental encouragement, but I’m going to take a strongly oppositional stance: it’s not only wrong, it’s toxic.

Why is it wrong?

From an evolutionary perspective, worry is one of the fundamental functions of imagination, if not the wellspring that makes the ability useful enough to survive in a population over time. Worry is, by definition, a state of anxiety over actual or potential problems, right? In the context of survival, worry is a thing of beauty. The ability to imagine everything that could possibly go wrong is a valuable step towards preparing a functional response that will keep you alive.

And while you can make the argument that the original problems that worry helped us anticipate (tiger attacks, for example) might be less pressing, you’d have to be a fool to think our world is functioning so beautifully that we have no use for solutions that spring from the imagination’s worries.

Worry might lead us to imagine living in abject poverty, which we might respond to by showing up for work on time consistently or being sensible about the debt we take on. Worry might lead us to imagine the return of smallpox, which we might respond to by getting our shots and advocating for good vaccination policies. Worry might lead us to worry about triggering World War III, which we might respond to by working really hard to keep the Drumpf from getting elected.

Far from being a waste, worry is one of the critical tools of imagination.

Okay, fine, maybe the quotation isn’t completely accurate. But toxic? Really?

Yes, really. Even if you brush off the worry about what it would be like to live in a world run by irresponsible adult-children who are incapable of applying forethought to situations that might be beneficial for us to avoid, shutting down the people who are good at worrying is just mean.

In my observation, social groups are more effective when you’ve got a good balance of naturally negative people and naturally positive people. Not necessarily a 1:1 ratio. 3:1 might be closer to the mark. If you look at “negative” people as “problem seers” and “positive” people as “problem solvers,” you can see how that balance might be useful. Three people whose primary talent lies with fixing things for every one person who’s primarily good at noticing what might need fixing could mean good odds for fixing those identifiable problems.

The difficulty is that “positivity,” being a trait that is useful in larger quantities, becomes “normal,” while “negativity” becomes seen as less desirable. (And let’s face it: negative people are not often the ones who are good at helping to foster group cohesion, which adds to the perception of negative thinking as inherently bad.) So instead of recognizing that these two habits of imagination (problem seeing and problem solving) are complementary skills that need each other, there’s a tendency for worry and negativity to be seen as something that has to be fixed by the positive people. And to treat negativity as something that needs to be fixed is to treat people who are better at seeing problems as if they are broken.

Labeling people as broken for the habits of mind they were born with is a toxic behavior, and that’s exactly what this quote is doing.

Come on…you’re not saying worry is always a good thing, are you?

I’m not. Really, and truly, I get where that quote is coming from. Worry can drag people down without serving a purpose. Just like blind enthusiasm.

Any trait that’s too far out of balance is going to lead to problems. In a world that’s a lot safer, statistically speaking, than the world in which worry was initially useful (i.e., Tiger Attack World), our imaginations are certainly capable of latching onto ridiculous scenarios to fret about and spiraling into obsessive panic attacks. That’s not good. That specific variety of worry is a waste of imagination. But if you lump all worry into the same category of wasted brain power, you will accomplish exactly two things:

  1. You’ll make the habitually positive people feel smug and self-congratulatory about their own lack of worry, leading them to feel justified in further telling negative people how broken they are.
  2. You’ll make the habitually negative people feel more broken and give them something else to worry about.

That quotation does both of those thing. I do hate to deprive the internet of a pithy conceptualization of a rampant topic, of course, so here’s a suggested alternative:

Worry is the salt of the imagination: too much could give you a heart attack, but it’s still essential to life.

How to Format eBooks (Like a Boss)

I recently ran a workshop on formatting ebooks for the Lewiston Public Library and promised to share an electronic checklist and the presentation slides on my site. So…here they are!

How to Format eBooks (Like a Boss): Slides
How to Format eBooks: Checklist

After the presentation, the librarian showed me her demo version of PressBooks, a service the library is considering subscribing to. It’s a WordPress-based tool for making properly formatted, quite lovely ebooks with a lot less labor than the DIY process I describe above, so if you’re daunted by the more technical process or want some a wider variety of spiffy pre-made styling options, you might find it worthwhile to shell out the $20/book.

Maine authors:

Once you’ve got your book up and published, one way or the other, don’t forget to consider submitting to…

  •  Self-E – This will eventually get you in their module for subscribed Maine libraries with a chance at being added to the national module. Right now, this is pretty much the only workable path for library exposure for indie authors.
  • ReadMaine – This is a work-in-progress, but once enough authors have sent in their info, you’ll have a free listing on a site meant to help Maine readers find and support Maine authors.

Happiness, Placebos, and the Beliefs of Others

Because I need one more thing in my life to distract me from actually making progress on any of the other things in my life, I’ve picked up a new hobby recently: wire-wrapping. To be honest, at this point, picking up the hobby mostly consists of watching hours of video tutorials. Something about them is just mesmerizing.

I have gone so far as to pick up some wire and rocks for the wrapping, which involved a trip to the Rock & Art Shop. I loved the Rock & Art Shop before I ever set foot in there, because my nephew has been buying all of his Christmas presents for the family there for a few years. He always finds the neatest things, so I was excited to have an excuse to pop over while I was in the area for a class with my mom.

My mom, against any odds I would have given you, fell in love with a hunk of polished fluorite. It was pretty, all purple and green, and her encomiums drew the attention of an equally enthusiastic clerk. “Oh, I love fluorite,” the young woman said. “It’s so good for you.”

The clerk then proceeded to spend several eternally long minutes exclaiming on the metaphysical virtues of fluorite, on its ability to soak up the positive ions emitted by technology in order to prevent them from throwing off our balance, on its ability to inspire creativity, and a number of other things I didn’t quite catch because I was trying to figure out how to get my mother out of this conversation before her religious aversion to all things mystical overcame her general politeness. Fortunately, about the third time that my mother said, “Yes, well, it is a very pretty rock,” the clerk picked up on the negative charge of her words and stopped attempting to talk the store out of a sale.

I have a tough time interacting with folks around such topics myself. I grew up in a pretty religious home and went through a difficult transition when I left home and realized that my particular beliefs were not just rationally hard to justify: they were actively harmful to people I cared about. I’ve managed to find a place where I feel stable, which includes a general skepticism of all things without any scientific support and a default moral position of trying (not always succeeding, but trying) to default to kindness in my actions to others. Anything more codified or mystical tends to put me at yellow alert, because it strikes me as just another skin for the same lack of responsibility for one’s behavior to others that drove me away from the church in the first place.

But…one thing that I do believe in is the placebo effect. While I very much doubt there’s any rigorous data supporting the ability of fluorite to improve one’s creativity objectively or any clinical trials to test whether or not Mercury being in retrograde actually makes the world go haywire, there are people who put stock in those ideas, and I’m sure that their belief plays a role in their ability to cope with what life throws at them. Coping mechanisms don’t need to be rational to be valuable, and having people who don’t take value from your particular mechanism cut it down is only either going to polarize you into a stronger belief or chip away at the placebo effect that makes your belief useful. So I try very hard to mostly keep my own baggage under wraps when other people wax poetic about their rocks and stars and prophets and just live and let live unless I see someone being hurt by someone else’s belief-motivated actions.

And then, there’s this: a qualitative study based on self-report around some admittedly squidgy emotion words. When you look at the vast numbers of people who cling to some sort of belief system, though, it’s not hard to accept the notion that the ability to engage in awe might actually be valuable to our well-being. Awe isn’t something I’m great at: experiencing wonder doesn’t so much go hand in hand with habitual cynicism as it does hand to hand. I’ve been stuck in a rut of “That’s cool if it’s true, but what’s the flaw?” habit of mind for a while, and it’s a rut that has some legitimate usefulness.

So here’s the question: how do you balance useful skepticism with a bit of healthy awe? Is it possible to experience the benefits of wonder without getting swept out to sea in a riptide of nonsense?

I had an extended conversation with a friend awhile ago about this article. I read it when I was at the bottom of a particularly unproductive slump of negativity, and she took me to task for doubting my own ability to wonder, because I do have a tendency to get a bit carried away by things that spark my interest…like watching people turn bits of unremarkable rock and wire into shiny jewelry. Or how knitting and trigonometry go hand in hand. I tend not to think of those sidetrips of fascination as awe, though, which is where the squidginess of emotion words in qualitative studies becomes problematic. If awe is not operationally defined, how am I supposed to look at my interest in dendritic limestone and judge whether or not it’s meeting my recommended daily dose of awe?

There are, obviously, no perfect answers that will suit everyone, and it’s not a scientifically well-defined problem, but it is something I chew on from time to time. What is the difference between faith in the ionic properties of rocks and joy at the process of turning them into art?

On Possessing the Origin of All Poems

I am bogged down in my least favorite part of writing at the moment. Every single one of my ongoing projects is at a phase where I’m slogging through tedious continuity edits and fact-checking. Blergh. If I emerge from the other side without shaving my head bald as some sort of desperate prayer for salvation from the tedium, I will count myself saner than expected.

I have to laugh at myself about the continuity piece. When I set out to write Autumn’s Daughter, the original intent was to work on a YA fantasy concept that would require minimal research and therefore be an easier gateway for playing with voice and plot and the like. I wasn’t wrong about the level of research needed to pull AD off, but what I failed to realize is that if you create a world that you decide to keep writing in, you are still going to have to put research in. The only difference is that you have a much smaller body of information to keep track of (i.e., what you’ve already written as opposed to, say, the entire span of works on Korean culture) and the information originated from your own brain…which mostly just means it would be several degrees of magnitude more embarrassing to rest the pivot point of the sequel on a fulcrum that you outlawed as impossible in the first book.

Fact-checking research is frustrating, but it’s also the foundation of believable contexts and rich scenarios. So: it matters.

The most difficult problem of research is, of course, “How do I know what I don’t know?” A friend gave me the term “postage stamp worlds” to encapsulate this struggle. When you look at stamps, they seem like a fairly simple illustration, but the closer you look, the more you realize that the art is lush with detail that seems impossibly complex for the size of the thing. Any area of expertise or knowledge is the same way: from an outside perspective, it looks like an interesting little hobby or quirky set of facts. The minute you decide to step in to become part of the world, however, you will find yourself tumbling down an absolute warren of rabbit holes.

I fall into these warrens all the time. One of the first qualifications for being a writer is probably an unhealthy fascination with pretty much everything, although there is some serious irony in the fact that my endless fascination with everything really eats into my writing time. My latest warren is drawing, in particular botanical drawing, and while I was reading Bente Starcke King’s Beautiful Botanicals, my brain latched onto this:

At the risk of moralizing, I will nevertheless point out that you should work from original materials and never copy someone else’s drawing. If another artist made a mistake, you are likely to repeat if not magnify an error.

While she’s discussing the importance of drawing from actual plants instead of photos or drawings, it’s an interesting thought to ponder in the context of writing. There is a great deal of temptation to borrow research from other writers. If I were to write high fantasy, for example, it would be incredibly tempting to simply mash together all of the weaponry / clothing / conveyance / horse gear / etc. terms I’ve picked up from reading an unhealthy amount of high fantasy. But that approach means that (a) I might repeat or build upon another writer’s sloppy research and (b) I’m limited to the set of details that other authors have chosen to pull from their studies and could very well be missing that lynch pin detail that makes the scene work.

I was listening to Tex Thompson and Dan Bensen talk writing on Dan’s podcast awhile back (which you should listen to in full), and they got into a discussion about Tex’s writing of horses and characters who love horses. Tex made the point that even though she is not really into the smelly, hot labor of caring for horses, she spent plenty of time around people who are, which itself gave her an insider’s perspective on how people appreciate horses.

What all of this boils down to for me is that, while good research is essential to rich fiction and the best way to resolve the epistemology problem of research is to get your feet wet in whatever postage stamp world you’re working with, you don’t necessarily have to dive in to find the hidden questions. Smart researching means making friends with a wide range of cool people with diverse interests and listening actively and intently to their enthusiastic gushing for the thing they love.

…Which means that writing fiction doesn’t actually excuse me from developing the good interview/people skills that scared me away from journalism many moons ago.

Curses. Foiled again.