Where have all the werewolves gone?

All stories are about wolves. All worth repeating, that is. Anything else is sentimental drivel.

All of them?

Sure, he says. Think about it. There’s escaping from the wolves, fighting the wolves, capturing the wolves, taming the wolves. Being thrown to the wolves, or throwing others to the wolves so the wolves will eat them instead of you. Running with the wolf pack. Turning into a wolf. Best of all, turning into the head wolf. No other decent stories exist.”

– Margaret Atwood

It happens occasionally, browsing through the agent profiles in The Writer’s Market or on #MSWL tags in Twitter. Not often, but often enough to realize it’s a hot button issue in the writing community.

The agent is looking for high-concept or speculative fantasy, with diverse characters and a strong female MC, a unique retelling of a fairy tale or myth. As I read along, nodding, I internally give myself a high five. I wrote some of those things!

Until I reach the end of the paragraph:

“No paranormal or supernatural,” the agent firmly stipulates. “No werewolves.”

That clinches it for me. I cut my losses. I put my tail between my legs and mope.

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I understand the werewolf backlash, I really do. It’s not so much backlash as collective industry and cultural burnout. From a marketing perspective, werewolves are viewed as a trend. At a certain point, a trend saturates fiction and is thereafter declared “dead,” and it is assumed nothing else can be said on the topic that either a) hasn’t been done before or b) will make anyone bothered enough to care about it again.

Anything that explodes in fiction will fizzle out pretty fast. The crushing enormity of popular books like the Twilight series obviously inspired a renewed fervor for the vampire/werewolf feud (why do they always have to be pitted against each other anyway? Can we all move on from that too?) and spawned numerous bandwagon iterations.

And I will say nothing more on that particular take, except that it could have benefited from some serious interventions with a red pen.

I, too, am burned out on werewolf fiction. But not for the same reasons as agents. Agents look at it, shake their heads, and say, “Not this again…Been there, done that.” I look at it, shake my head, and say, “Not this again…There is so much more to do.”

And whether you’re pointing the finger at Twilight or Teen Wolf or any other modern interpretation of lycanthropy, remember that they weren’t there first. You’ll have to go back further than Teen Wolf (the original) or An American Werewolf in London or more obscure cult films like Ginger Snaps, further than Harry Potter, further than the novel series by urban fantasy mavens Kelley Armstrong and Carrie Vaughn and Patricia Briggs. Furrrther.

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You’ll have to go all the way back to Lycaon. Remember that its roots lie deep in a centuries-old European folkloric tradition, and older still if you trace the etymology to ancient Greece. Stories of shapeshifting and anthropomorphic beasts are found in cultures worldwide.

And yet, even though there’s nothing conceptually new about it, we keep treading the same ground: the “alpha male,” silver bullets, super-strength, lack of self-control, nudity for the sake of convenience. At least, these are all the touchstones of werewolfery that are given the biggest dues.

Growing up, I’d always loved the mythology of werewolves, and wolves in general. But the two were strangely incongruous in fictional portrayals. They took the hierarchical structure of wolf packs — essentially a single breeding pair, sometimes accompanied by an adaptable auxiliary family of relatives and strays — too literally, insisting on enforced roles of dominance and subjugation. And of course, the werewolves must always be big, bad, and bloodthirsty. Nevermind that actual wolves rarely attack humans and have a high tolerance for periods of famine.

Werewolves were always howling at the moon for no apparent reason other than to make a spooky sound, even though it’s a highly nuanced means of communication between gray wolves. There was always one male alpha werewolf, aggressively claiming “females” and territory against “outsiders,” as if the wolf is an excuse for toxic masculinity. Wolf patriarchies aren’t a thing.

All told, it’s exactly what the horror genre is going for: an angry, scary monster that’s only vaguely wolf-like, if only in namesake. And sometimes, in the literal physical sense (no offense to Buffy’s gorilla costumes; they did their best on a low budget).

I couldn’t help but wonder where real werewolves had disappeared to. These modern characters were so different from one of their earliest manifestations: the Faoladh.

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The Faoladh of Irish mythology would be considered an anomaly in the horror/supernatural canon because it subverts the mainstream preconception. They can shapeshift at will into your average-looking wolf. They are considered guardians of children, the sick and wounded, and lost people. According to multiple sources, their predatory behavior reflects that of typical wolves. They sometimes live as wolves for seven year periods. They were recruited by kings during times of war.

Werewolves with true duality and morality. Now that was a mythology I could get behind.

The Faoladh was an inspiration for THE SOFT FALL by proxy, because its lore was exactly what I’d been missing from werewolf stories. That, and plenty of other unexplored terrain.

I wanted to write female and gay werewolves, because the theme of transformation and self-control and identity is ripe for metaphorical possibilities thus far overwhelmingly limited to male violence.

I wanted to write werewolves making found families that more accurately depict pack dynamics, all the playfulness and depth of caring for other members in the emotional context of internalized accursedness.

I wanted to write about the impact of werewolves on their environment — having as-yet-unexplained magical powers over the earth — to reflect the value of wolves as keystone predators on the ecosystem.

“It’s a very serious story about werewolves,” I would say to that agent that is not looking for them, given the chance. “In all fairness, my manuscript never mentions the word ‘werewolf’ once. And it hardly qualifies as paranormal romance, but I still feel the need to apologize about that, thanks to a certain popular book series with a certain contentious love triangle. Sorry.”

(Not really sorry.)

My critique group is reading it right now, and I can’t wait until they find out the werewolves were the good guys all along.

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So you’ve written a novel. Now what?

My friend and fellow bookseller/writer emailed me recently with a great question.

I had a customer come in today and ask about what his next steps should be after completing a book. He says he has had people read it for him, but he was wondering what he should do next.

Do you have any advice for would-be published authors? How did you go about sending in your work? Where did you send it? How did you decide where to send it? Do you have someone helping you figure all of that out or are you basically on your own?

While I certainly don’t know all the answers, I can share my experience from the first draft to submission-ready:

Read as many books as you can.

Read nonfiction about the writing process. Decide what rules seem reasonable, then stick to them. Decide what rules seem questionable, then break them. Analyze the classics in depth. Read genres you wouldn’t normally read. Read stories completely different from yours. Read stories that seem uncannily similar to yours. Read good technique and learn from it. Read bad technique and learn from it. Go on a blind date with a book. Judge books based on their covers, then pick them up anyway. Get a thorough feel for your likes and dislikes — it will make you more confident in your own style.

Start by talking about writing — but not too much.

A magician never reveals their secrets, and in the same way I hesitated to talk about my writing out loud for a long time. I didn’t want to “ruin” the magic. I didn’t want to seem pretentious about making art. I wanted to have something to show for it, and I didn’t. Not yet.

First, you must decide when you’re ready to talk about the writing. Know that others will ask you what you write about, and be prepared to answer, but always keep a part of it secret. Know that others will ask you to read your writing, but don’t always say yes.

Don’t share your first draft.

Ideally, not the second or third either. Make one exception if you must, for someone who has been there since the beginning and knows you and your writing style well (my husband has offered his edits and commentary on everything I’ve written). But be selective in choosing your beta readers. I also recommend asking as diverse a sample of readers as possible, to get a wider range of perspectives.

When I felt ready to “test run” the manuscript, I sent copies to a small group of trusted friends who were interested in beta reading for me. If you or your friend have never done this before, it will be daunting. You’ll feel you won’t know what to expect, that it’s a huge favor to ask, that people have busy lives and won’t really have the time. Your friend will wonder how brutally honest they should really be. That’s okay — you’re learning together.

Make sure to mention there’s no pressure to finish it, but you may be pleasantly surprised.  The majority of friends did end up not only reading, but offering feedback (and in some cases, extensive feedback) to give me a general idea of what worked and what didn’t work for them.

Gathering those opinions, then I was the one who got to decide what worked and what didn’t work for me. Give each comment serious consideration first, but some will be minor nitpicks. Those can be taken with a grain of salt. But if you get a major consensus on something, it’s fair to say that thing should be changed.

Find your writing tribe.

When you have a polished draft, now is the time to really start talking about it. Try blogging. Look to your community for other writers. Take a writing workshop class, join a local writing organization or chapter, attend author events, and engage in discussions about writing through social networking or online forums. Follow literary agents on Twitter and subscribe to writing newsletters that appeal to you. Learn from others’ mistakes and victories.

I was lucky enough to be offered the opportunity to join a writing critique group, and something remarkable happened: I learned that the seemingly solitary craft of writing, when taken seriously among peers, becomes a deeply social experience. I learned I wasn’t alone.

Write your query letter. 

Get thee to a library, bookstore, or credible Internet source, and research how to write a solid query letter. Create masterlists of ideas that inspire you and advice that compels you. Look at examples by other authors.

Put your book in good hands. 

Pick up a copy of the Writer’s Market for the current year. If it’s a novel you’ve finished, there’s a Novel and Short Story version. These volumes give the most up-to-date information on the industry, including literary agents, presses/publishers, and contests you can submit to.

Note which ones are looking for work like yours and which are open to unsolicited submissions. Follow any specific guidelines to the letter. Be professional, concise, and humble (but not desperate) in your approach.

Wait for it…

The query process is a waiting game. Agents have piles and piles of slush to work through. By the time they get to yours — even if they like it — there’s no guarantee an offer means publication. And if publication is on the horizon, that alone takes time.

You will get rejected. Sometimes it has nothing to do with the quality of your work, and sometimes it does. It’s dependent also on the timing of genre trends, marketability, and an agent’s particular taste.

Have patience. Have heart. Above all, keep trying — all it takes is one “yes.”

 

Get to know the author

Here are a few things you can know about me that aren’t in the About Me section!

  • I grew up in the woods. Literally. Across the street from my family’s house was a small wooded area they called the greenway, broken by a paved bike path, a playground on the far right end, and Tickle Creek. One tree there grew at a perfect right angle. I’d spend countless hours in those woods, looking for four-leaf clovers and digging for neat rocks and nibbling on honeysuckle and imagining fantasy stories. Somewhere there’s video footage of me, age five or six, marveling at some skippers in the water from when the local news covered a story on the creekbed. I was certain those woods were magic.
  • I have social anxiety, which I like to describe as not a fear of being open, but of inauthentic relationships. More often than not, I prefer the written word over the verbal. I can be talkative when I need to be, but small talk doesn’t come easily. Neither do things most people find simple: holding eye contact, making phone calls, going out to eat by myself, sometimes even going out at all. These are things I work on all the time.
  • I consider myself a feminist housewife/domestic goddess, and cooking is my alchemy. My husband and I support our local farmers market every week, are part-time vegetarians, and are really into urban foraging — hunting for birch bolete mushrooms at his workplace, or picking figs from a neighbor’s tree (with permission, of course). My favorite challenge is finding creative uses for the various edible flora he brings home, like strawberry tree fruit (this past week it was turmeric fronds). Our long term goal is to have a small sustainable farm of our own, living off the land, with a cow dog and a vegetable patch.
  • Love is my answer to most everything. I’m just a hugely passionate softie who believes in the power of love and emotional connection. And I think more than anything, whether they know it or not, people just need someone to listen to them. If you’re feeling sad, I will sit down and listen to you and make you hot tea from my ridiculous assortment of loose leafs. If there’s anything I want written on my headstone, it’s “she was a lover whose heart beat so strong it couldn’t beat forever…” Or something like that. In a poetic way, of course.
  • A few favorite formative books: every Harry Potter book ever, Women Who Run with the Wolves, Frankenstein, The Call of the Wild, Cloud Atlas, the Sherlock Holmes stories, The Kingkiller Chronicles, The Millennium Trilogy, and far too many others.
  • A few favorite modern films: Ruby Sparks, Moulin Rouge, Princess Mononoke, Beauty and the Beast, Lost in Translation, The Fall, The Princess Bride, Lord of the Rings, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Wonder Woman, and still far more.
  • A few favorite modern albums: AM / Arctic Monkeys, Guero / Beck, Every Open Eye / Chvrches, Random Access Memories / Daft Punk, Hot Fuss / the Killers, Fantasies / Metric, Black Holes and Revelations / Muse, My Love is Cool / Wolf Alice, and far, far more.
  • Random facts: I love going to libraries, coffee shops, 24-hour gyms, thrift stores, and other places in which to get lost and found. My hobbies include camping and mountain hikes, listening to NPR, and crafting homemade gifts for friends. Driving tends to make me nervous so I will avoid it whenever possible. I wear copious amounts of black eyeliner to look more like 27, since I look maybe 12 without it. I’m left-handed, a Taurus, a Gryffindor in name but a Hufflepuff at heart, and I swear like a barmaid (especially if in casual company, especially in private, and especially if wine is involved). Other than getting published, my future dreams involve learning to play guitar, traveling to Japan, getting my first tattoo, and world peace (2018, please).

The “right” way to write romance

It’s said that the effectiveness of a story lies in the storyteller’s unique approach to revealing a fundamental truth of the human condition. By nature, writers must ponder a provocative array of existential questions, draw sketchy conclusions at best, envision a stirring character monologue about the death of consciousness mid-shower, fail to get dressed as the slow realization that this may be a poor vehicle for exposition descends upon them like an albatross, waste precious time thinking about the precious time they’re wasting, envision an omnipresent goat, burn their tongue on hot coffee while experiencing an epiphany, return to the drawing board, and frantically type eleven pages before breakfast.

I mean, what? I have never done this.

But few things about the human condition fascinate me more than the psychology of love.

I consider myself agnostic, a strong supporter of science, and a deeply passionate person. In fact, I’m a hopeless, bleeding heart romantic. But these traits aren’t mutually exclusive.

And I can’t describe my outlook on love and romance without telling the story of the first time I fell in love.

I met my future husband at age 16 at an outdoor summer concert in our Central Oregon hometown (Beck was playing), upon introduction by a mutual friend who I arrived with.

Up until that point in my adolescence, I had only pined for crushes in monk-like silence, as though if I channeled my feelings through osmosis they’d magically pick up on them. The few times we did have conversations, I resented always being the first one to make a move (little me and adult me are similar that way). So something about this guy was especially disarming, because we actually managed some mutual awkward flirting before the show started. At one point, he asked if I was able to see over people’s heads.

“Not really,” I said.

He asked, “Do you want me to make you tall?”

I replied in the enthusiastic affirmative, and he hoisted me up above his shoulders, literally sweeping me off my feet, reader. I gazed above a small sea of hipsters and watched the sound techs checking the equipment on stage as the sun set.

About halfway through Beck’s set, my concert-going-pro friend had slyly noodled her way up to the front row (I would learn later that this was a deliberate move, and the whole thing was a set-up. As far as I’m concerned, I owe this clever friend a life debt).

By the time night fell, a mosh pit had broken out among the rowdier attendees, causing the two of us to lose our balance, toppling into bystanders and each other. An unanticipated circumstance (this was a Beck concert, after all), but nonetheless, there we were.

In the throes of those sweaty bodies, pot fumes, and Beck’s sweet sweet crooning (seriously, we’ll never remember how the moshing began), future husband took it upon himself to gently scoop me into his arms to prevent potential bruising or trampling. There was no grand romantic intention — he just thought, “There is a petite girl here and I’m going to keep her safe” and did the thing.

Lucky for both of us, I thought it was romantic as hell, and proceeded to cling to him for the remainder of the entire evening. He didn’t let go, either, even after everyone around us calmed down. Instead we just kind of hugged each other, both avoiding eye contact while looking at the stage. (It was hard not to look at this cute boy, though, and that’s saying something as Beck had a back-up band of puppets. Puppets.)

I’m not going to pretend this wasn’t anything short of meet-cute cliche. This was a scene straight out of a Cameron Crowe rom-com. This was a summer night, two strangers in the middle of a crowd feeling like the only two there, and as the haunting strains of Beck’s “Broken Drum” echoed in my bones while my head rested on future-husband’s chest, I knew I was having A Moment. I like to think I knew right then, because even if love itself doesn’t exist at first sight, the possibility of it felt very real, and is basically the same thing.

We’ve been together ever since (11 years), and yeah, he proposed at the same place too. Surrounded by our friends. With a ring he had made from his mother’s diamond.

I’m telling this story to illustrate the point that love can be entirely unpredictable and entirely like some love stories lead you to believe. It can be both, and that doesn’t make the romance less valid.

That’s why when I read a romantic narrative that others complain of being “forced,” “unrealistic,” or “cliche,” I hesitate to be so critical. If you’ve ever fallen in love, hopefully you’ll know what I mean. If you’ve loved long enough and hard enough you’ll know what I mean. Sometimes it’s not a problem of characterization, but of personal preference, which is why readers ship different pairings and love what they love. It’s all good.

But don’t confuse my romanticism with a rose-tinted outlook. I’m also one of the quickest to challenge the things society romanticizes — superficial and performative “romantic” gestures, the patriarchal roots of institutions such as marriage, the white/heteronormative/cisgender/monogamous narrative most often imposed on us by the media that neglects so many beautiful ways to love.

Other love-related tropes in stories I roll my eyes at (and occasionally viciously skewer with my pen of justice):

  • “Marriage is a prison that will make your life miserable.” I mean, your mileage may vary, but why is it culturally accepted that married couples hate each other? Why is it so difficult for media to portray a married couple that isn’t just functioning, but is actually respectful, playful, healthy, and passionate?

I’d just love to read a story about a married couple whose marriage isn’t the main source of conflict. I just can’t relate to that constant level of drama, but beyond that, it’s a pretty damaging way to view relationships.

  • “Romantic love is superior to platonic love.” The concept of the “friendzone” is often painfully sexist, reducing women to being valued only as romantic partners, and reducing the inherent value of friendship. Conversely, I’d like to propose the concept of “defriendzone,” when a man who was once friendly toward you, upon realizing you’re in a long-term romantic relationship (or the value you place on it, as if you can’t simultaneously value male friendships), effectively denies your very existence.

Now tell me what’s worse for your self-worth: being told “I don’t want to date you, but I’d like to be your friend,” or being told “a man has claimed you, so I, a man, cannot acknowledge that you, a woman, have any value to me.” This used to hurt my feelings when I was younger — now I just say, “Cool, man — be careful not to slam your massive dick in the door on the way out!”*

*Sorry to any easily scandalized folks, parents, or professionals who may be reading this.

  • “Men want sex more than women.” This one is interesting because the consequences seem far less insidious. It is through stories that we are conditioned to laugh at the porn-loving perv, to nod our heads sagely at the womanizing philanderer, to feel sympathetic toward the overbearing father whose teen daughter has been discovered by boys. The message is that men desire sex, as if desiring sex is an exclusively masculine inclination. Men are the gatekeepers of sexuality.

Wow, where do I begin with this one? Sex is a human function? Women are humans too? Women don’t always have sex to procreate, and sometimes have bigger libidos than men? Or the most shocking truth of all: Women who love sex and own their sexuality aren’t morally corrupt?

I’ll just be over here then, burning at the stake.*

*Again: I’m so sorry, easily scandalized folks, parents, and professionals. So sorry again, for that.

I also can’t talk about romantic narratives without mentioning shame. If I’ve just met you, if I find you especially intimidating, or if I admire you, I’m probably going to be on the quieter side. As someone who has spent a great deal of her life wrangling a Cerberus of social anxiety, that’s just how I roll sometimes — and that can change once I get to know you. I thrive on deep, meaningful connections. On the outside I might be a calm facade with the occasional nervous giggle, while on the inside I’m spazzing out like a three-headed puppy that has just been offered treats.

I think women in particular are like this about things they enjoy. I think it’s because some of those things considered feminine — specifically the romance genre, or stories with a romantic arc — are also considered silly and frivolous and pandering. And I think that’s a damn shame, to be shamed into silence.

Just as ye olde “men desire sex more” trope gets so much airplay, it’s common knowledge that “women get emotionally attached” — and as a result, we mask our excitement. We don’t let on how we really feel, because remember, emotions are bad! And you should feel bad for having them!

Even when we do enjoy a thing, people forget that we can enjoy that thing in theory, but not in execution. I enjoy the shifter flavor of paranormal fantasy — and I’m a sucker for character-meets-physical-monster-with-a-heart-of-gold arcs — but a lot of those novels are awful. It doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the fun bits (legitimately sorry).

So before I get off my heart-shaped soapbox, I’ll leave you with a few parting thoughts:

  • You can absolutely appreciate a romantic storyline while also poking fun at it or pointing out its flaws.
  • Open your mind to different kinds of love. Writers of romantic narratives should all strive for more diversity, inclusivity, and healthy portrayals of relationships.
  • You don’t need anyone’s permission to love what you love.
  • True love is real! And it’s pretty cool.

Get spooky

Last October, I was just wrapping up my first round of novel submissions. Since then, I’ve spent every fortnight getting feedback from a talented group of writers, revising the manuscript, and preparing to come full circle for another round of submissions before Halloween.

More on the first part later, but today I want to focus on the last.

Today I want to tell you about fear.

There’s nothing that stops creativity dead in its tracks like fear. I can be as content as I’ll get with a draft, but once it comes time to share it, my anxious mind sows the seeds of doubt. My fear response talks in bold, full stops only:

Holy shit, why would you want to do that. What’s wrong with you. No. 

Sometimes it also demands weed and lying inert on the floor.

The trick is not mistaking the fear response for the voice of reason. Sometimes it keeps us from doing stupid things, makes us slow down and compose ourselves, helps us to survive. Other times, when it’s speaking from anxious impulse, it doesn’t have our best interests in mind. Rather, it keeps us from doing our best work.

Those who critique a piece of writing can be just as afraid as the writer. If they know the writer personally, it’s not an easy task to break it to the writer when the story dynamics just don’t come across.

I have a wonderful friend and beta reader who admitted they felt terrible at giving feedback, describing themselves as a “cheerleader type” critic. But there are so many flavors of critique, and while they can be informed by craft, they all come down to individual opinion.

I told my friend that not only is there absolutely nothing wrong with being a cheerleader; it is so important. Anyone who creates anything needs a support main as much as they need tough love to both improve and keep going.

There’s really no wrong way to critique, except maybe having no response at all. No response means no feeling generated, and that’s the essence of good storytelling. While I’d love to someday be a bestseller, to see my name in print, or even to have the bragging rights of a published author, those goals are self-serving.

When we do things for other people that feel performative or obligatory, or that are ultimately for our own benefit, we don’t get as much satisfaction as when we do things that others find pleasurable. Art is human connection, an evolutionary imperative vital to our existence.

The goal of writing should be to make your reader feel something. Anything. The goal of writing is not to please everyone, because you can’t. I might please a few people, and that’s enough.

However, the act of writing doesn’t live and die with reaction. That depends on familiarizing yourself with the trickster nature of the fear response, and knowing when it’s just noise.

My wonderfully supportive husband once gave me a pep talk to the effect of, “You need to believe that you’re good enough to do this, because you are. If you want to make art, you have to not be ashamed to be seen as an artist. Don’t sacrifice the importance of your goal for modesty. You didn’t work this hard for nothing. So you need to keep sharing it.”

Sharing is caring, and caring is creepy. It’s okay to put your work out there, raw and strange and fear-inducing as it may feel at first.

Because when we fear being vulnerable, we risk losing the comfort and validation of that vital human connection. When we share a piece of ourselves, we become better, bolder, and more authentic artists — and people find that energy refreshing.

Maybe then, they won’t be afraid to be themselves either.

On not writing

Up until recently, I’ve been a non-active writer. Not because of writer’s block, the dreaded phrase indicating a lack of inspiration to fuel the fire. Not because of writer’s slump, when there’s plenty of fuel but little motivation to do anything but poke around at sad coals.

Because it was a conscious decision. Because I wanted to walk away from the fire to explore the world, gather better kindling. Maybe even let my bones get a little cold, so I can better appreciate the warmth when I return.

Wait a minute, you say. Isn’t that counterproductive? What happened to the age-old writing advice: “write every day”?

My argument, for your consideration: “write every day” is a misguided method. Its intentions are good, if you’re trying to stay on track to finish a first draft. But there are times when you need to get off track. There are times when you need to put the pen down and walk away.

Like a gift, this time presented itself to me somewhat serendipitously, when I was invited to join a local writing critique group shortly after finishing my manuscript. At least, it felt “finished” enough — but I needed more eyes on it that weren’t mine. I needed new, diverse perspectives to weigh in on my writing in order to achieve a more balanced, more informed perspective of my own.

Setting aside a piece so you can come back to it afresh is understandable, but I also chose not to write other original fiction during this time. I allowed myself distance from writing altogether — and I can see why some writers might shudder at the idea.

But here are some reasons why not writing, as crazy as it sounds, can actually improve your writing:

  • Every intense exercise needs a period of recovery. My husband and I love to run and lift weights, and created a schedule for our fitness goals. We’d probably hit the gym every day if we could, which sounds healthy in theory, but it’s not. Muscles need a break to repair themselves between workouts, so I blocked off my weekends for rest and yoga. As the body needs a period of recovery, so does the mind. You’re only human, and writing “every day” doesn’t take into account your mental health. Giving yourself a break also reminds you to be playful. Writing no longer feels like a chore, but can be paused and returned to as necessary. How long you measure your recovery depends on your personal goals and what you want to get out of your work.
  • It’s good to reflect on your mistakes, instead of ignoring them entirely or trying to fix them right away. By wanting to go full steam ahead on a manuscript, it’s easy to slap it down and call it done. It’s much harder to slow your roll, to be objective, to say, “you know, I really need to consider what could be changed about this.” Alternatively, if you suffer from perfectionism, it’s important to learn the difference between aimlessly tinkering with the writing versus creating any actual, nuanced revision.
  • What’s old to you is made new again, through subtle deception. Fiction writers are frequently asked, “How do you come up with your characters?” This is a hard question to answer, due to the way it’s phrased. I don’t so much “come up” with characters as let them come to me. Sounds like pretentious writer crap, I know. But actively seeking characters is like trying to approach a stranger, asking them 50 questions about their personal life, and waiting to see what they’re willing to reveal. When the process is more passive, you’re allowing a stranger to approach you, tell you their truths, and accept your counsel on their own. Taking a hiatus from writing allows the latent issues of your draft to reveal themselves anew. Treat it as an experiment in reverse psychology, and you might find that the characters magically devised their own development while you were away.

Writing is about the approach as much as the execution, and taking time away from it isn’t necessarily going to be the best approach for you. For me, it was downright difficult. Fledgling writers are usually preoccupied with getting into the “habit” of writing. But when it’s already an established habit, how do you get out of it?

Joining a critique group was the answer for me. Their thoughts are my kindling for the fire. At last evening’s meeting, a fellow member commented that my dialogue tags seem so natural, and I couldn’t help but laugh. I have a tendency to write all the dialogue in a scene first, so the stream of conversation flows naturally — the tags are almost an afterthought, added in later.

It’s amazing what you’ll discover about your own writing when you stop engaging with it, even for a moment. Stop writing, and listen. Learn and grow. Come back. Write again.

Get unstuck, then stick it to the man

For a few months now, moving forward creatively has been a struggle. I’m not talking about writers’ block, necessarily, but lacking the motivation to continue writing when things feel overwhelming.

When I started writing The Soft Fall, I was working toward a tangible goal that would have an end point. When I finished the novel, I could submit it and receive any number of reactions. Encouraging reactions? I get the opportunity to level up. Critical reactions? I get the opportunity to go back and fix something broken. Either way, getting reactions means getting opportunities means getting experience. Reactions beget actions.

I did receive reactions, both encouraging and critical, to the manuscript. I still have three full in-progress submissions in the hands of agents and publishers and out of mine. While awaiting their reactions, how could I move forward in the meantime? Career-wise, how could I best apply my time and energy?

I thought writing new content would be the answer. Writers only become more proficient and prolific through practice. Stick to the craft, set a word count for the day. I outlined a sequel I called Echelon Rising, a story about Eccka, a woman of color inheriting a corrupt, patriarchal government who despises her, all while undertaking the monumental task of winning a war with an outnumbered battalion. I slapped a few disjointed scenes on my keyboard, and thought. And kept thinking.

Then I stagnated. I spiraled. I didn’t have it in me to keep writing. You’d think our current political hellhole would add more to the fires of inspiration. And I am inspired. And I am angry. But more than ever, I am burned out. Because it feels all too real.

I want to write this story, but emotionally and creatively, I’m spinning my wheels, stuck in a muddy ditch. I’m exhausted from driving all night. And I want to get unstuck, but I’m going to need a little push first. Maybe I need to appreciate the rarity of a good Samaritan stopping by the roadside to help, taking time to critique my work and point me in the right direction. Maybe I need to check my mileage to remember how far I’ve come. Why stop now, after so long on this road?

Self-doubt is a constant companion to writers. Despite this, when I started writing The Soft Fall, I felt optimistic. I don’t know that I can say the same now. So in times of crisis, it can be therapeutic to acknowledge past times in which we created our own happiness, and try to recreate that feeling again. It can break us out of a destructive negative feedback loop of fear, inaction, despair.

Getting stuck and spinning wheels is easy, but what about when the survival instinct kicks in? When zombies are chasing you and you have no ammo left in your shotgun and your friends and loved ones are somewhere on the other side of that ditch counting on your safe return, are you going to sit there and wait for your brains to get eaten? Or are you going to leave the rig behind and run for your life? Will you let terror consume you or make you more courageous?

Call it irrational, but this old thing I’m driving is my baby. I believe she still has a little spark left. And maybe if I hit the ignition again — maybe if I go in reverse this time — I can gain traction, roll out of there and take out some of the horde in the process.

Or maybe I’ll stay exactly where I am. But isn’t it worth one last try?

I’m not giving up writing, especially in the wake of such emotional turmoil and devastating defeat. That only gives the winning side more power. But I am going backwards. Sometimes we are forced backwards, and the only way to go forward is to regroup and regain a hope we’ve already fought so hard to make a reality.

I’m going to gather my new critiques and improve on anything that could possibly be improved on, and then redouble my submission efforts. Because young adults need stories with hope right now.

After that, and after a little self-care and menial but hard labor at a day job for awhile — or if my novel ever does get picked up — I promise, I’ll come back for Eccka. And I’ll do her story the justice it deserves.