8 Re-Interpreted Signs That You Were Meant to Be A Writer

typeCN0047Earlier this evening there was a tweet going around, linking to “8 Signs That You Were Meant to Be a Writer.” Of course I clicked over to read the eight signs. I like to see how predictable I am sometimes.

Sadly, I didn’t really like the list and explanations. It’s not that they were wrong, necessarily, but it was all sort of drippy and sappy and the explanations for each item were not really explanations at all. It talked about things like secret dreams (about writing) and excuses (for writing instead of doing other things) and yearning (to write). Which is not to say that these things are NOT signs that you were meant to be a writer. I’m not trashing the article. However, I believe the interpretations were slightly off the mark and I have re-interpreted them in what I think are more realistic terms here.*

1. Secret Dreams. Yes, writers have secret dreams. Sometimes they are even about writing. More often they are about quitting the day job, writing the next breakout novel, or even just getting something published so that your family and friends will stop calling you a “writer” in quotation marks and you can stop feeling guilty about all that money you spent on books, workshops, and computer software for writers.

2. Doubt. Absolutely. Doubt is always sticking its head in at the door and saying “Excuse me, loser, but I thought you should know that last paragraph you wrote is absolutely dreadful, that character is so wooden you should name him Pinocchio, and the plot is so full of holes that you could strain jelly through it.” Is doubt a sign that you’re meant to be a writer? Maybe. Because a lot of people who obviously aren’t meant to be writers don’t seem to have any doubt about it at all.

3. Excuses. I have to do laundry. I have to clean the house. I have to make cookies for the school bake sale. I have to exercise now. I have to scour the bathroom cupboards with an old toothbrush and then paint the barn. I have to redesign my website. I have to use social media for the next four hours to promote my writing career. Okay, excuses: check.

4. Inspiration. If you were meant to be a writer, you probably have a love/hate relationship with inspiration. You know that you can’t always wait for it, and that you must learn to work without it or create your own. But it does come to you at times. Usually when you’re driving on a four-lane highway, taking kids to a birthday party, having an emergency meeting with your boss, or giving birth.

5. Perfectionism. If you’re meant to be a writer, perfectionism will always occur in inverse proportion to the amount that is required in a given situation. You’ll think your sucky first draft is good enough and send it to an editor when it’s still so rough it will scratch the editor’s eyeballs. On the other hand, you’ll rewrite, edit, tweak and polish your novel so much in search of perfection that it will start to wear thin and you’ll never send it out.

6. Admiration. You’ll admire other writers, of course. You’ll admire their writing style, their relationship with their adoring fans, their ability to support themselves with their writing, and the wonderful way they “pay it forward” by taking fledgling writers (not you, of course) under their wing and helping THEM become successful, too. Oh, wait. I was thinking of jealousy.

7. Lacking. When you don’t write, you feel like something is missing. But sometimes when you do write, you also feel like something is missing, because it was something you were supposed to do (go to work? feed the kids?) during the time you spent writing. You could end up lacking a job, a family, or a place to live. Oops. Yes, lacking is often a large part of being a writer.

8.Yearning. Yearning to write. Didn’t we cover this in number 1? And possibly number 7 as well? Okay, yes, writers have yearnings. To write, and sometimes to not write. To find perfection, and sometimes to have someone come in and just fix the whole damn mess for you, slap your name on it and call it a day. To have an unlimited supply of chocolate and caffeine, a brilliant idea, and an all-expenses paid week-long writing retreat? Yearning. Oh yeah.

So…are you meant to be a writer? If you’ve read this far, it’s quite probable, because you’re likely supposed to be editing that novel right now…

*Sometimes I write things that I think are funny. If you don’t agree, you don’t have to tell me about it. Just move along, folks, move along.

The Awesome and Terrible Power of Words

papercrumpleAs a writer, I’m very aware of the power of words. I hope to write things that harness and use that power, whether I want to make my readers laugh, cry, think, feel–I know that with the right words, I can make any of that happen. I work hard to find those right words, even when they seem unattainable.

I know that it takes hard work to arrive at the “right” words. We write, and then we write again, and then we write again, hoping that each draft brings us closer to the goal. Even then we rewrite, edit, tweak, and sometimes cut out large swathes of the words we had previously worked so hard on, that seemed so right at the time, and replace them with something that works better now. And maybe we finally arrive at the point where we think it’s “right,” and others agree, and we publish it, and there it is, all printed and official and real. Powerful. Persuasive. Permanent.

And then we read it later–maybe years later–and see how we could have made it better. Or we read it and realize that it’s dated, or we got something wrong, or things just didn’t turn out the way we had envisioned. This can be particularly true for science fiction writers. It doesn’t mean our words or the story they told were not good at the time. But if we were writing the same thing today, with today’s knowledge and understanding and context, we would write it differently. Verne’s From the Earth to The Moon might seem silly now because we know that we can’t travel to the moon by being shot from a cannon–and yet it is not completely without value. It remains fun to read as a product of its time, and it inspired Tsiolkovsky to develop his theory of spaceflight. It has been outdated in some ways, but still forms the foundation of what followed.

Sometimes we have to accept that our words–or words we love, or which have great importance for us–get it wrong, or become outdated, or lose some portion of their value. Maybe it’s a function of the time they were written in; maybe it’s a function of imperfect knowledge by the writer; maybe (and this is the most common, I think) the world just works differently now. Does it really make sense to think that all words written two hundred, three hundred, a thousand years ago can apply to the world today? How much has the world changed in your lifetime, or in your grandparents’ lifetimes?

Words that were written long ago, even very important words–although this is painful for many people to accept–can lose some of their relevance. Sometimes they simply no longer apply because society and social norms and values have changed. Sometimes they have been misinterpreted and the results don’t make sense in a contemporary context. Sometimes they have been perfectly well interpreted–but the results still don’t make sense because the world to which they are being applied is not the same world in which they were written. When, in fact, the world to which they are being applied could not even have been imagined by the writer or writers.

As a culture, we value the power of the written word, sometimes further and more blindly than we should. We think we have “rights” because a long time ago, someone wrote it down and others living at the time agreed with it. We think we know how to live in the world because someone wrote a set of rules that made sense at the time and with the state of knowledge and understanding at that time. This is true for political documents, and religious documents, and historical documents.

We cannot take it as a given that all these written words are infallible or immutable–when we do, we run the risk of allowing their power to become twisted and terrible. We can’t simply point to words and say “See? This says X and so that’s the way things are.” We must ask if we can reasonably expect to apply these writings to a world which would not even be recognizable to those who wrote them. It’s quite possible that some parts will stand the test of time. But from time to time they must be questioned and re-evaluated to see if they still hold true and are still relevant. Sometimes we need to think about what it really is we are trying to defend. We may need to look deeper into words to identify their true meaning, spirit, or intent. Sometimes words are not black and white.

And if they don’t bear up under this close and demanding examination, then maybe it’s time to rewrite them, edit them, or acknowledge that they have outlived their usefulness. They are only words, and they have only as much power as we choose to give them. We can always write more, that will serve us better.

Influences – L.M. Montgomery

I could hardly come to Prince Edward Island on vacation without taking a few moments to reflect on Lucy Maud Montgomery and her influence on me as a writer, and as a reader.

I grew up reading Montgomery. The big bookshelf at my grandparents’ house, which offered an absolute cornucopia of reading bliss, was well-stocked with Lucy Maud’s books–not only the ubiquitious Anne, but also the Emily books and others. Don’t get me wrong, I liked Anne well enough and read her series quite thoroughly; but it’s the later Anne books I particularly enjoyed, and I think Anne of Windy Poplars is probably my favorite of them.

It was always Montgomery’s lesser-known works that were my favorites overall, though. The Emily series–Emily of New Moon, Emily Climbs, and Emily’s Quest–they spoke to me far more than Anne did. (And before you ask, no, it’s no coincidence that my daughter’s name is Emily.) Emily is the creative one–the writer, in fact, and probably my very first introduction to the notion of the long, slow path of a writer’s life. I think having that understanding has been a great help in finding my own way as a writer.

The Story Girl was another perennial favorite (and its sequel, The Golden Road), as was Pat of Silver Bush, and A Tangled Web.

Looking back, I think the appeal of the books to me as a younger reader and teenager was Montgomery’s deft hand at characterization. These were not thrilling adventure books with complicated plots (although A Tangled Web has a beautifully complex and interwoven storyline), but the characters came to life on the page with vibrancy and color, and their problems, big and little, mattered to the reader as well. They were, overall, “happy ending” stories, but not syrupy–Anne and Emily are both orphans, to start with, and the stories in all the books reflect both the lighter and darker sides of life in the time periods in which they are set. While the Anne books are more romanticized, many of the other titles explore more realistic themes and aspects of life. They are probably, as a whole, the most re-read books for me.

It saddens me somewhat that these stories have gone out of fashion for young readers with the passage of time. But I guess that kind of sentiment makes me sound old and crotchety, so I’ll just end by saying–thanks, Lucy Maud. You made my reading life much richer, and my writing life easier to navigate.

The Multi-tasking Blues

Hello, my name is Sherry, and I’m a multi-tasker.

It’s true–I love multi-tasking. I love having two monitors and a fairly fast computer, because it means I can have so many things on the go at once. Right now, for instance, I’m writing this post in one browser tab. Other open tabs hold Gmail, some affiliate link things I’m working on for The Scriptorium, a couple of articles I want to read later, and a map I used earlier today. (Okay, I can close that one now.)

In addition to the browser, Evernote is open, as is Photoshop, two twitter clients, Skype, and Outlook. I also have a widget for my four favorite RSS feeds.

Sure, I’m only looking at ONE of those things at a time, but it’s somehow comforting to me to know that I can pop over to any one of them at any time. I feel busy and productive and WOW, like I’m really getting a lot done.


Except that I’ve read a few things lately about how multi-tasking is really not that good for us. That it leads to less productivity overall, and shortened attention spans, among other things.

My first reaction to these claims was “pshaw!”. Well, I didn’t actually say “pshaw,” because who really does that these days? But my feelings were the equivalent of “pshaw!”. I mean, that couldn’t be true, could it?

And yet now that I’m thinking about it, I am beginning to wonder. It’s very easy, when one has so many options, to hop back and forth between them, tinkering a bit and then hopping off to something else when the first thing gets difficult. And even when things eventually get done, I’m starting to wonder if they’re suffering from my lack of focus. Are they actually somewhat diluted because I haven’t given them enough of my undivided attention?

I also notice that I skim/skip a lot more magazine articles. The only magazine I read with any diligence is New Scientist, and I used to devour almost every article, cover to cover. Now I tend to skim through, sampling first lines here, reading a paragraph or two there, and then moving on. That can’t be coincidence. Science news hasn’t gotten more boring, certainly.

While I wrote this post, I answered a tweet, looked at a notification, and checked a note in Evernote (that was not related to this task). That’s not too bad, I suppose, but would this post have been even better if I’d had nothing else open on my screens while I wrote it?

I’m seriously considering cutting back on my multi-tasking to see what effect it has, if any, on my concentration and focus. I’ll report back on this entirely unscientific investigation in due course. If I remember, that is!

Summer Reading, I Love You

Of course I read all the time, but I’ve always tended to read more during the summer months. There’s something about summer that just says “recharge your batteries” to me, and that means spending as much time as I can immersed in someone else’s imaginary worlds instead of my own. The advent of audiobooks means that I can expand that reading time even further. Oh. Yeah.

So I thought I’d share my summer reading list, so far, and planned.

Although June is really still “spring” around here, and it was super busy this year, it was a good month for audiobooks. I listened to The Last Good Man, by A.J. Kazinski; Cinder, by Marissa Meyer; U is for Undertow, by Sue Grafton, and The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag, by Alan Bradley. Good reads, all (which reminds me, you can generally find out all of this stuff and more by following me over on Goodreads). These days I find that I’m particularly interested by books that offer me something new–a different take on an idea, or something I haven’t come across before–especially in the speculative genres.

I kicked off July with another audiobook, The Knife Of Never Letting Go, by Patrick Ness. Wow, I found this book stressful, but also gripping. I have the next two in the series queued up on my iPhone ready to go, but I had to take a little break for the sake of my nerves. Currently, I’m almost finished listening to The Third Gate, by Lincoln Child.

On the print side, I’m reading Zero History, by William Gibson, and on my Kobo I have The Art of War for Writers, by James Scott Bell. Although you’ll see other books on my Currently Reading shelf over at Goodreads, these are the ones I’m really actively reading right now.

My big vacation read this summer will be Stephen King’s 11/22/63. I have been saving it for when I can really get into it, but I know I won’t wait much longer. It’s sitting on my reading pile just daring me to put it off another day. I’m getting a bit worried, though…what if I don’t like it? I’ve been anticipating it for so long, it’s going to be a big let-down if it doesn’t live up to my expectations.

The pile in the picture is only the tip of the TBR pile. No doubt I’ll be back with another summer reading post anon.

Title Fight

This is not one of mine.

In a recent interview I (and a number of other authors) did over on the Third Person Press News Blog, one of the questions was about story titles–specifically the title of the story each of us had in the new anthology, Unearthed, and more generally, when and how we get our titles.

The title of my story in Unearthed is pretty simple: “The Cache.” It’s a story about what happens to two characters who go geocaching and find more than they bargained for, so the title seemed a no-brainer. However, it’s probably one of the least interesting ways to get a title that I’ve used, so I thought I’d elaborate a little here.

My two favourite ways to get titles are: 1) have the title come to me before I even know there’s a story to go with it, and 2) find a pre-existing line of verse and take the title from it (either directly or slightly twisted). The first way is a product of serendipity, so it can’t really be planned. It can be coaxed, to some extent–by thinking maybe in very general terms about a theme or setting and just letting the words dance and mix and float around until they coalesce into something. But most of the time it just…happens.

The second way, I go about very methodically. I surf over to Bartleby.net (although I’m sure there are other searchable verse or literary databases out there) and start running searches on keywords that have something to do with the story or story idea. I jot down everything that speaks to me, and then usually at some point I know I’ve got the one I need. Some of the titles I like the best have come out of this process: One’s Aspect to The Sun, Spaces Sharp and Bare, and To Where the Aether Failed. (I see, looking over my list of stories and novels, that this method seems to work best for novels. Huh. I never noticed that before.)

Other titles have come from the subject line in a spam email (Operant Moon), online generators (The Murder Prophet), and song titles (The Light of the Silvery Moon). And then the rest…I guess mostly from a word or phrase that comes out of the story or story idea itself. Sometimes I don’t even know how the title ties in to the story for sure until I’ve written more of it.

I rarely change a title. Maybe it’s a holdover from the old superstition that it’s bad luck to change the name of a horse or a boat, but once a story has a title, that’s usually it for me. In truth, I can think of only one that I changed on the suggestion of an editor. So thus far I guess I’ve been lucky.

Writers, what’s your favourite way to get a title? Readers, do titles ever turn you off before you even read the back cover blurb?

The A-word

No, not that a-word. This past week or so I’ve been thinking about advertising (and promotion) and the various ways writers go about it.  Interestingly, I also read two posts on the topic; one from Chuck Wendig (http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2012/04/25/let-us-discuss-the-nature-of-book-promotion/), much of which took place in the comments, and one from Joseph Devon (http://josephdevon.com/2012/04/words-advertising-book/7130/), where the author discussed things he has tried and what has worked for him. All of this is very interesting reading if book promotion is something on your mind. And interesting to me because I am really not all that good at it myself (but that’s not the point of this post).

I’ve also been wrestling with the decision of whether to un-follow a couple of authors I follow on Twitter. Now, I actually read things on Twitter; I don’t just follow folks willy-nilly so that they’ll follow me back. This indiscriminate-following sort of use, I think, removes Twitter from being the solitary writer’s equivalent of a water cooler (I think it might have been the aforementioned Mr. Wendig whom I saw first refer to it that way), and turns it into a big echoing abyss where everyone is shouting into it but no-one is listening to what comes out.

The problem with these particular authors and the way they are using Twitter is this: they tweet solely about their books and the books of others in their network(s). Over and over. And over. One even makes a point of saying that he rarely goes "off-message." This, I suppose, is meant as a selling point for authors to use him to promote, but to me as a follower it has the opposite effect. It says, "you are never going to hear anything other than these promotions from me." Whoa, dude, way to tell me you’re going to be boring to follow.

Now, it’s not that I’m uninterested in independent or self-published or discounted-for-promotion books. I’m not a reading snob and frankly, especially of late, I’ve frequently put down a bad "traditionally-published" book in favour of a non-traditional but more interesting/better-written one. I’m a big fan of independently-produced audiobooks. It’s not that I don’t want to discover more of this engaging writing that flies under the tradpub radar.

BUT. I don’t want a steady diet of plugs for it in my Twitter stream. It’s "social" media, folks, not "commercial" media.

So, how can authors use Twitter (and other social media) effectively? It comes down to three things, I think: personality, value, and balance.

First off—you, the author, are a real person. Don’t be afraid to be that real person in your social media participation. The most interesting writers I’ve found on Twitter have a personality; they are not just ad-pumping avatars. It’s entirely possible their online personalities are nothing like their real-life personalities, but at least they present one. Sure, they mention promotional stuff when they have something new happening, but it’s not all they talk about. Imagine if you were at a party and an author talked about nothing but their new book and their friends’ new books. After half an hour you’d be sidling away or out the door, thinking about a different a-word. So if you wouldn’t do it at a party, why do it in another social venue?

Second—value. My favourite people on Twitter are those who often point me to other interesting things or people on the internet, or write about other interesting things and tell me about that. It’s a big, big world out there, with lots to discover and share with your friends. It also offers another glimpse into the things that you as an author find interesting, and if I, as a reader, know that we share some common interests, then maybe I’ll be more likely to think you might write a book I’d like to read.

Third—balance. Find a good balance between personality, value, and advertising. Too much of anything is going to upset that balance, but a nice mix of the three will make your advertising and promotion much more palatable and actually likely to make someone act on it.

And…if you’d like to see how I try to mix it up on Twitter, you can always follow me @sdramsey.  Just, y’know, sayin’.

Photo credit: xenia at Morguefile

Re-evaluations ~ The First Mistake

It didn’t take me long to uncover the first mistake in my previous time-organization plan. Because yes, I did have a plan before. In fact, it had two elements. I had a detailed calender laid out in Outlook, blocking off each day into segments, and I also had a “daily slog” list in Evernote, with little checkboxes and everything, so that I could keep track of what I was accomplishing. As well as notes in Evernote for projects, to-do lists, time tracking, etc.

So why wasn’t that working? Why did I still seem to have no time to write?

Very simple. Writing was not the first thing on my list every day.

I’ll say it again: writing should have been higher on the list.

See, my thinking was, get all of that other stuff out of the way first (like website updates, blogging, submission tracking, etc.) and then have a clear mind and conscience heading into writing time. For me, however, that just doesn’t work very well. Because all those other things can 1) take more time than one expects, and 2) lead into other things that will take up even more time. And then before you know it, all the chore time and all the writing time have both been used up.

Why didn’t I see this before? I think because I kept telling myself, “once you get all this out of the way, THEN you’ll have more writing time.” But that’s just a trap for the unwary, because, like housework and laundry, all that other stuff is never finished. I was only fooling myself that things could ever get better under that system.

This seems so simple and self-evident now, I feel rather foolish even admitting it. But that’s the only way I’m going to learn. So, step one, I’ve rearranged my Evernote list to better reflect my priorities. I’ve set time limits for non-writing jobs and pulled out my timer program. It’s only a first step, but I think it’s a good one.

Photo by Mattox (http://www.sxc.hu/profile/Mattox)

Dusting Things Off

Well. It’s been a while since my last post, which usually means it must be either early spring, or possibly early fall. I know that because January and February are difficult months for me to stay focused and productive, as are the summer months, although for very different reasons. However, the drip, drip of melting snow outside my office window tells me that this time, it’s spring.

While I’ve been busy not-writing, (albeit doing a lot of other writer-ish things) over the past couple of months, I’ve been considering the problem of how I spend my time. And realizing that I really need to downsize 1) the amount of time I spend on writing-related-but-not-writing endeavours, and 2) the amount of time I spend on things that *seem* important but probably aren’t. I’ve known for some time that this is a problem, but it was highlighted for me recently when I read an article on categorizing activities into quadrants of necessity, distraction, waste, and extraordinary results. I plan on taking a hard look at where my time fits into these quadrants and ways to put more into the fourth one.

Spring is a good time for re-thinking and renewing.

Work is moving swiftly now on the newest anthology from Third Person Press, Unearthed: we have cover images in place, most stories are out to contributors for final review, and we’re ready to start typesetting. We’re hoping for a release date sometime in May, so stay tuned. It’s our biggest crop of stories so far, and we’re excited about it.

Off to make the perfect Evernote to-do list!

Photo credit: johnnyberg

News Roundup

I’m pleased to announce one winner in my book giveaway: Chuck Heintzelman! Chuck correctly identified the provenance of my collection’s title, To Unimagined Shores, as a line from the poem “The Twilight of Earth” by George William (“A. E.”) Russell:

THE WONDER of the world is o’er:
The magic from the sea is gone:
There is no unimagined shore,
No islet yet to venture on.

Chuck’s copy is winging its way to him now!

In other news, all of our Third Person Press titles, including To Unimagined Shores, are on sale from now until Christmas Day for just 99 cents each! This is a great chance to fill your ereader (or someone else’s) with short speculative fiction to keep them reading into the new year. Click over to the order page at Third Person Press and grab your copies!

And finally, I’ll return to my Tales of Tales posts tomorrow, with a look at another story from the collection.