this went on a weird tangent but bear with me

There’s just something about wearing a button-down and a vest and oxford shoes that … makes me smile. I really like wearing dresses too, and there’s something about a fully made up face that’s nice (without going into the politics of it all), and I do like wearing heels sometimes. The traditional trappings of femininity aren’t bad things. They aren’t the end-all be-all, but they’re not eeevil. I just … also love the styles that fall into the “dapper” category. I like looking at other people wearing that style, and I like dressing in that style. I don’t do it as often as I could, though, considering how many button-down shirts I own – or rather, I don’t do it to that extent. Usually I go for more of a business-casual route with the rolled-up sleeves rather than the full Monty. Which is weird, when I think about it. It’s not like the full Monty of button-downs and vests and oxford shoes are exactly inappropriate office attire.

I mean, ideally we’d be able to walk around like fluffy Renaissance shirts and dresses with trumpet sleeves down to the knees were normal office attire, right up there with glowing neon buttons on shirts and other fun things out of a Star Wars film, but that’s neither here nor there. Maybe in another century.

Though by then things like button-downs and oxfords will probably be seen as an archaic costume to dress up in, like Renaissance festivals now. Now imagine a twenty-second century “office party”-themed thing. Who knows what hilarious anachronisms there will be.

I guess flip-flopping between different styles is kind of like food. I really enjoy both sushi and pasta, but I’m more likely to go for pasta simply because it’s A) easier to find B) generally less expensive and C) I have to be in a Sushi Mood, whereas pasta is eternal.

Flip-flopping between different styles isn’t the weird thing, whether it’s clothing fashion or food or music genres or anything else. Hell, religion and lifestyle enter into it, too. Stereotypes exist because humans like assigning people to categories, and those categories allow our brains to take short-cuts instead of second guessing everything in our environment. But no one fits neatly into a template. It’s easy to reduce someone you don’t like to cardboard cut-out status, and it’s easy to write characters that are cardboard cut-outs, but the best characters are like humans – all humans – in that the first three things you notice about a person don’t necessarily define the rest of the person.

But appearance does matter, however much we might want to deny it. Everyone presents an image to the world, whether they do it consciously or not. And we like to say “don’t judge a book by its cover,” but we still do it, because some of the information that first impression presents is important.

Sometimes the little bug in the back of your brain says “I don’t like this person,” and you table it for later, and it turns out to be right. Sometimes the little bug in the back of your brain doesn’t say “I don’t like this person” until after they’ve provided reasons for you not to like them. Sometimes the little bug in the back of your brain waits until years after the person’s provided reasons not to like them, to realize what went wrong. And sometimes the little bug in the back of your brain says “I don’t like this person,” but they never give you an actual reason to dislike them, so you have to stuff that little bug back in its box.

But you never know what it’ll turn out to be.

make the best of it

“Glitter and Be Gay” sounds like something out of a pride parade, doesn’t it. Bahaha. It’s actually from the operetta Candide, and it’s the song in which young waif Cunegonde decides to stop moping around about her situation and start taking advantage of it. The message or “plot” of the song is funny on its own, but the song is really technically difficult – if you take a listen, the notes jump around a lot, and very quickly, and get progressively higher and higher, some of them notes that only dogs can hear properly. Then on top of that, while the singer could just stand there and deliver a technical performance, the blocking of the scene generally requires a lot of jumping around and playing with costume jewelry.

I don’t usually think of acting in a musical as a strenuous workout, but seeing Kristen Chenoweth perform this song, I can definitely believe it.

What’s interesting to me about this song is that Cunegonde has been treated horribly by the narrative (thanks, Voltaire), so it isn’t as though the moping at the beginning of the song isn’t justified. I mean, if your family had been slaughtered in front of you, and you had been rock-paper-scissor divvied between a corrupt member of the Church and an old merchant, and that was only the start of your troubles … well. That kind of tragedy is pretty exhausting. But underlying this is a sort of meta idea that while it makes sense to feel sorry for yourself, it’s also boring to watch other people wallow in misery – and it doesn’t do anything for the plot, either. At some point the character’s gotta pick herself up and find a way to keep going, otherwise she’s a cardboard cut-out.

And while in the original novella, Cunegonde pretty much was a cardboard cut-out, the operetta’s got some dissenting opinions on that.

So, having endured so much already, Cunegonde decides to not only endure her current situation but to take as much advantage of it as she can. She redefines her character from “broken victim” status to “survivor,” and when she does finally reunite with Candide, she’s got the willpower and resilience to escape with him as an active participant in the plan.

(A cynic might ask, “well, if her situation is so horrible, why doesn’t she try to leave sooner?” But that discussion is a subject for a different post.)

(And if you’re thinking, “jeez, who reads this much into a musical number,” all I can say is I was an English minor for a reason.)

Anyway, if you’ve never read the book Candide, you’re not missing out on that much. The operetta sensationalizes the story and makes it a lot more fun for consumers, but it gets the main point across, too, and the plot points are easier to remember when they’re attached to snazzy musical numbers. I wouldn’t call it “pandering” so much as “making it more accessible.”

Besides, what book hasn’t been vastly improved by the inclusion of snazzy musical numbers.

creature of habit, pt 2

I don’t like making the effort, but I like the results of making the effort.

The trick is in convincing yourself to turn the effort into a habit. The first time I wake up at 5 am, I feel like a zombie, and it takes me a solid twenty minutes to get out of bed, and even then I’m grouchy until the first cup of coffee. The first time I go running, it’s not exactly a run as it is short bursts of jogging followed by long intervals of wheezing and cussing under my breath. And eating healthy means consciously substituting those Oreos for an apple, or sugar-free gum.

It’s really easy to fall back into the old habits. I don’t have a sweet tooth, I have a sweet tusk. And while I certainly enjoy dancing and acting and swimming and sometimes even exercise, usually I’m the immovable object rather than the unstoppable force – which also applies to sleep. Dang, I love sleeping in.

So making a new habit is tricky, sometimes. You sort of have to bribe yourself to do it. For me, dragging myself out of bed at 5:30 (baby steps) to wheeze on down the road wasn’t fun or easy the first time, but I did see a rabbit in someone’s front yard, and it’s pretty cool to see the sunrise. So the next time, it was a bit easier. And this morning I saw a deer, which is a definite upgrade from rabbits.

It’s the same thing with books. I like writing, but I don’t like shutting myself away from other people, even if I need that solitude in order to write. But it’s pretty darn awesome to hold Book Two in my hands and say, “I made this.”

And a year down the line, with a bigger library of books written, and lungs that will actually handle over thirty solid minutes’ worth of running? That’s something to get excited about.

I mean, it’s still really uncomfortable for now, but progress isn’t supposed to be comfortable. And once it turns into a proper habit, then making the effort will stop being something to complain about – and the results will only get better from there.

creature of habit

I have a callus on the side of my right middle finger. I first got this callus when I was seven or so, I want to say, because that’s when I first started writing by hand extensively. Wooden pencils (or ‘analog’ as I like to call them) give you that callus, and make it a lot thicker than a plastic mechanical pencil or pen will. After I started doing more of my writing on a computer — I want to say it was somewhere in high school that I moved from composition notebooks to a computer permanently — the callus became less pronounced. It’s still there, but these days the handwriting I do is confined to jotting down notes on a Post-It or writing in my little black book. And it’s usually no longer than an hour’s worth of handwriting at a time.

It’s the nature of the beast that writing on a computer is faster than longhand. Sometimes my thoughts go slower than my pen, but sometimes the only thing that can catch up to how fast the ideas come is the keyboard. Thank goodness for all those “Type to Learn” classes they forced us to take in elementary school. (They’re still doing those, right? Hunt and peck is fun but only when you’re not trying to write over 3k at a time. Also, does seeing elementary school kids with tablets and smartboards(tm) make anyone else feel old? No? Just me? Darn.) In any case, while some people prefer the sensory feeling of writing longhand, I prefer the expediency of a keyboard to record my ideas and write my drafts. In the same vein, I prefer using my laptop to writing on my smartphone.

The actual weird thing, though, is that which application I use also seems to make a difference as to my productivity level. I used to do all my typing on Word. Approximately one zillion of all the embarrassing body-swap and clairvoyant and historically inaccurate pirate stories that I wrote on my parents’ clunky old desktop in middle school were written using Word. And every last essay I ever wrote for high school and college was using the Word app. So I should still be okay with using Word for writing my manuscript drafts, right?

Nope. I can’t stand it now. For some reason, Word just isn’t comfortable for me anymore, like too many hours holding an analog pencil.

I’ve been using Scrivener for the last year and a half. I’m sure there are plenty of other writing apps that give you just as many cool doodads (like compiling the draft to pdf/epub, or viewing multiple sections of the same document at the same time), but I’m perfectly content with Scrivener. It does all of the things I need it to do, and after the first hour playing around in the tutorials, it’s fairly intuitive as to usage. But to be completely honest, I’m sticking with Scrivener because A) if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it and B) I just seem to write better on Scrivener than on Word, and I’d probably feel the same with any of those other newfangled apps.

It’s the same sort of thing with WordPress. I can type my drafts in the WordPress site. The site offers that ability. But I’d rather transcribe an already written post into the WordPress site, than compose it for the first time in WordPress. I’d so much rather type up the blog post in an email app, save it as a draft, and then copy/paste or retype into WordPress. More effort? Yeah, but not longer than five minutes’ worth, and retyping gives me a chance to edit, anyway.

Call it an idiosyncrasy if you will. But if you ask around enough, you’ll find that everyone who writes has some kind of weird habit. I think I’ll take copy/paste and retyping over only being able to drink Mountain Dew any day.

to each their own

… said the old lady, as she kissed the cow.

I have no idea where that saying comes from. My grandmother used to say it a lot, but as far as I knew, she wasn’t interested in kissing cows. The idea, of course, is that everyone has their own personal tastes, and just because mine differs from yours doesn’t make one worse than the other.

This kind of goes back to the Shakespeare thing I was talking about earlier. If you really like something, and someone whose opinion you value doesn’t like it, then most humans will jump to a conclusion — either the thing is bad and I’m immoral/stupid for liking it, or the thing is good and the other person is stupid for disliking it.

And then there’s the mirror, where you really dislike something, and someone whose opinion you value likes the thing. Either the thing is good and I’m stupid for disliking it, or the thing is bad and the other person is immoral/stupid for liking it.

It’s more comfortable to think that someone else is wrong, and it’s easier to sling insults than to think critically, whether you like or dislike whatever film/book/tv show/etc is currently being dissected. So no matter what your initial position is, it soon becomes clear that everyone else is not only an idiot, but a dangerous idiot, that needs the full arsenal of scathing wit at your disposal.

And then, there are the folks who just enjoy being mean to others. They seem to come out of the woodwork a lot more online than in realtime. While the “block” button is always a good friend, somehow the consequences aren’t as severe online when people act like a jerk. Get kicked out of one forum and you can always join another one.

Me, I stay in the back and concentrate on the Tolkien/Potter stuff. Those folks are pretty low key. They got most of that stuff out of their system back in 2004.

the Monica Chronicles

I really like writing. I mean, obviously. I’m looking to make a living out of it. And whether it was my job or not, I’d still be doing it, because I just really like playing around with words, making or borrowing characters and spinning them through stories. (Yes, I write fanfiction. Hush.) I’ve mentioned before that I keep a little black book – or a collection, now, I think I’m on the thirteenth? – where I write down the stuff that goes on in my life. Sometimes funny quotes, occasionally rambling about the latest song or movie that wormed its way into my head, mostly just downloading whatever’s been going on in my life. I’ve been writing in these journals off and on since I was fifteen. It’s one hell of a doozy to look back at the kind of stuff you were thinking in high school, let me tell you. But it’s really cool to have a record of the ways I’ve changed and the ways I’ve stayed the same.

One thing that’s been pretty consistent about these books is that when I’m in an irregular place, I write a lot. Whether that’s a visit to my sister’s college campus, or holiday with the folks, or whatever, on the transit time I write like a Muldoon, at a greater volume than normal. Maybe because those trips are more exciting, but it’s not like those long drought intervals are exactly boring, either. I mean, just because life is relatively stationary doesn’t mean it can’t get interesting sometimes. And there’s the other aspect – like the one time I brought a video camera to a church youth group trip and spent way less time recording than I anticipated – when you’re chronicling something, you’re not actually doing it. You’re just watching.

The best middle ground I can find is to play catch-up. You spend the time when things are happening, actually participating. And then in whatever downtime you have, you write down how it went, as soon as possible, while it’s still fresh in your memory. I know there are some things from years ago that I only still remember because I had the presence of mind to write them down at the time.

Case in point: if I hadn’t recorded it, I probably wouldn’t remember that this Halloween I got to overhear – with regards to the chalk outlines drawn on our driveway – a snippet of conversation between two tween kids:

“Yeah, don’t step on the body parts, Monica.”

Priceless.

you’ve gotta work at it

It’s always been pretty easy for me to understand Shakespeare. That sounds awfully pretentious. The language of it, I mean. There are Easter eggs in there that I wouldn’t have understood without the benefit of a de jure English minor (like the fact that Macbeth was written tongue-in-cheek for King James just a few short years after the Gunpowder Plot), but the language of the plays, written as they were in Renaissance English, is fairly transparent to me now. It helps if you have an edition of the plays that has handy definitions on the verso of every page – if I recall correctly, the editions my high school used were the Folger Shakespeare Library editions – but even when I was just starting to read Shakespeare in eighth grade, I picked up on the language a lot more easily than some of my classmates did.

It also helps if you have a proclivity for language in general. I mean, I was the kid who named one of her plastic frogs Aquaculture in elementary school, and bragged about reading the dictionary for fun in middle school. (Mostly the name etymology section. Not the actual definitions. But it’s very fun to pore over the ~meaning~ of names when you’re writing awful original fiction on your parents’ crusty old Windows desktop.) And then again I also majored in French in college, and spent my senior year translating excerpts of Victor Hugo into English, so language has never been something I struggled with.

Math, though? Absolutely horrible. I had to repeat pre-algebra in middle school, and struggled through pre-calc in high school, and it was with relief that I discovered I didn’t have to take calculus my senior year, but that statistics filled the math requirement just as well. I took one (1) math course in college, and that was only because I had to fulfill a requirement there too, and you can bet that I made sure it was statistics.

Some things, you just have a knack for. Some things you don’t. I’ll never like math the same way I like language; and there are other people who feel the reverse. I’m sure if I wanted to, I could work at it and become if not comfortable then proficient in things like calculus and physics and o-chem. These things are skills that can be developed, whether you have the initial boost of talent or not. But it’s human nature to like the things you’re immediately good at more than the things you have to struggle with. And the more you like something, the more you practice it, so the better you get, so the more you like it, and so on … and vice versa. The less you like something, the less you practice, so you don’t progress as far, and then maybe you even start to hate it. I had a friend in high school who could not abide Shakespeare, because the language of it came about as easily to her as flying comes to a tortoise. I was baffled, because look at this soliloquy, isn’t it perfect? And she just wanted to know what the bloody hell Macbeth was going on about seeing a dagger for.

It’s all in how you look at things.

But here’s the thing: if you’ve got the knack, but you don’t practice the skill, you won’t get very far. And if you’ve gotten used to being automatically good at something, the first time you hit a road block – whether that’s a new subject you don’t have the knack for, or a more advanced version of what you’re already studying – boy, it sure is easy to get intimidated by failure. Whereas someone who doesn’t have the talent, but practices the skill anyway, already has that valuable experience and will chug along pretty steadily while the talented person is still trying to figure out what to do next.

A tortoise walks a mile a hell of a lot better than a flightless eagle.

Do what you can, when you can

Sorry for disappearing off the face of the earth, folks. The busy season at work started a couple weeks ago and we’ve been swamped, and we’ll probably stay swamped until Thanksgiving. Wading through ten times the usual amount of phone calls makes getting everything else done a little harder, and then coming home, well, sometimes a body just wants to veg out on the sofa and not think for a while.

A bad habit of mine is that when there’s something big I need to get done, I divide it into the fewest number of steps possible. On the one hand, simplifying things is good. On the other hand, within each big step are a zillion tiny steps, and my brain likes to gloss over the big parts and then obsess over all the tiny things I need to do. They’re all important, I insist. Every single small thing is important and I have to do all of them at once before I can move on to the next step, my God, how am I going to do this, let’s sit and stare at the tv for a while instead because just thinking about it is too stressful.

It’s not exactly the most productive way to go about things.

So I’m trying to get a little more laid back about my personal writing requirements. I don’t have to pound out 1000 words in twenty minutes, but I do have to write something. Because if I get too fixed on the word count to actually write anything, that defeats the purpose. (Yes, I know, it doesn’t make sense. It’s like hating regular sized tomatoes but loving cherry tomatoes. That’s just how I roll. Sorry.) (Not actually sorry. I’m serious about the tomato thing.)

Do what you can, when you can. You won’t be able to climb the whole mountain today, but you can get started on the foothills, and even if you don’t get halfway up, you’re still farther than you were when you started. Any progress is still progress.

We’re looking at end of September/beginning of October for Book 2. Stay tuned!

It’s all in how you look at things

In other news, I aten’t dead, just … restin’.

Perspective is probably the first thing you notice when you crack open a book. Whether it’s first-, third-, or second-person — yes, I have encountered second-person — it’s going to make an impact on the reader, and of course on the story itself. I don’t usually like first-person stories, though there have been notable exceptions (the Resurgam books by Joan Frances Turner immediately come to mind). Second-person immediately gets jettisoned, unless it’s a choose-your-own-adventure story, and I haven’t read one of those since I was in middle school.

That’s a prompt for another blog post, though. There are other kinds of perspective thay matter in a story, and those are the ones I want to focus on today.

Innocence versus experience is probably the one used most in Western literature. You’ve got Wordsworth of course, and then you also have writers like Philip Pullman who prod at the notion, unravel it, and stitch it back together to make something new. Then you’ve got the hero’s journey where a character gets dragged kicking and screaming into caring about other people. There are other shifts in perspective, but usually they can be boiled down to innocence versus experience, or selflessness versus selfishness.

And these are interesting character arcs in and of themselves.

But — and I refer back to my favorite zombie book Dust by JFT– sometimes, using a changing perspective to look on the same event (or using the audience’s different perspective) can be just as interesting, and just as thought-provoking.

In one of the flashbacks, Jessie (our undead protagonist) meets up with a group of other undeads and becomes particularly attached to Joe, a Chicago biker who died sometime in the seventies. At the time of their meeting, Joe has been undead for over thirty years; Jessie, meanwhile, is fresh out of the grave, and was just fifteen when a drunk driver killed her. So we, the audience — as well as Joe, who keeps reminding her of the age difference — know that he has a huge psychological advantage over her, even if she can pound him into a pulp just as much as any of the rest of the undead crew. Jessie, freshly dead and twitterpated, stays with Joe when she has every ability to leave, and Joe of course is perfectly happy with this outcome.

But the main story takes place nine years after Jessie died, and when she narrates this flashback, it’s from a position of experience and disillusionment. “Like I said,” she tells the audience, and we can hear the bitter wistfulness, “I was fifteen.”

It’s that darn verisimilitude at work again. We’ve all had something happen that we feel differently about years after the fact. And if we can identify that same feeling with a zombie? Then maybe the rest of the story will feel real, too.

Accountability

Technically I’m in two lines of work right now: the writing job, and the day job. Sneer all you like at the concept of day jobs but right now this one is bringing in a lot more money than the book (singular, soon to become plural) — that old saying about beggars and choosers, et cetera et cetera. But I like my day job. I get a sense of accomplishment, and I get to help people out. It’s pretty nifty.

I’m also accountable to a solid handful of people. If I muck up, it isn’t just me on the line, it’s my manager, and her manager, etc. Turtles all the way down, as the saying goes. But the other thing is, my job hinges on other people doing their jobs, too. If I don’t know the answer to a problem, sometimes I can find it out on my own, but sometimes it isn’t up to me. Sometimes all I can do is ask the question and wait.

It’s not the most uncomfortable of situations, but still. One of the reasons indie publishing appealed to me so much is that I don’t have to rely on the decisions of some agent or publisher in order to get my work out there. As an indie, every aspect of the process is under my control. What the cover art looks like, which scenes get cut, when the final product gets released. And if something goes wrong, or I find a mistake, it’s on me — which also means, I have the ability to fix it. I am accountable to and for myself, and no one else.

Some people like to think that nothing is their fault, that they are the victims of circumstance and the machinations of others. It’s all one big conspiracy against me specifically, they cry. It’s not fair. I don’t deserve this!

Mm, sorry, since when did “deserve” enter into the equation at all? The whole concept of a free market means that if you work hard and often, and your product or service is good, you have a higher chance of succeeding. Notice the use of the word “chance”. There are no guarantees in life except death and taxes. And frankly, no one owes you anything, not their money, not their respect, not their patience. You have to earn it, no matter what line of business you’re in.

Even more so if you’re part of a team working together, with other people relying on you to do a specific job.

Is that harsh? Maybe. But personal accountability is something that everyone should have, and use, and examine. Playing the victim means giving up part of your power to affect the world around you, and it’s a self fulfilling prophecy. You can’t just wish for good things to happen. You have to work at it, and test it out, and work at it some more.

Now I’m off to go work at it.