One year ago today, on September 15, 2019, I self-published my first novel, OPEN: A Tale of Love, Mermaids, Bassists, & Creepy Dudes. I was, of course, terrified and elated. It seems so long ago — 2020 has been a roller coaster, and I feel like I’m not quite the same person as I was this time last year.
In the past year, I:
- applied to literary awards;
- sold my book in independent bookstores;
- gave an interview on TV;
- discussed queer literature on the radio;
- gave a few written interviews;
- opened my own shop;
- and quit my day job!
This has been a time of introspection, and as I was working on my second novel, Load Game, I went through some realizations. Some of my writing habits, my blind spots and weaknesses as a writer, are also some of the pitfalls I encounter in my personal life and the ways I cope with them.
Realizing this felt like a self-burn of the highest order — the nerve of my writing to call me out like this! — so naturally, I had to make a post about it, because what is writing, if not very public, basically free, therapy?
So now it is time to sit myself down and serve up some cold hard truths.
Lesson One: Dealing With Consequences
Here I was, writing along my merry way, months after killing off a character, when I realized, after a death, there’s usually a funeral! This was nowhere in my outline, although funerals are great settings for plot happenings.
Aftermaths will be my downfall.
I hop happily from plot point to plot point, sowing chaos and completely ignoring the very concept of consequences or aftermath, not to mention the fact that consequences are an essential part of the theme of this novel.
The thing is, I do this in my life too: whenever bad stuff happens, I shove my emotions down and flutter on out to the next thing, never living in the aftermath, pretending it doesn’t exist and I don’t care. I even did this in the first draft of this very text: I jumped to lesson two right here, completely ignoring what I can take from this realization.
I think there’s power in identifying this, both in myself and in my writing — I can use this to reflect and to grow, both on and off the page.
Lesson Two: With Great Plot Comes Great Conflict
Some authors delight in dragging their characters through hell; they cackle as they kill their loved ones, dangle happy endings in front of their nose just to snatch them away at the very last second. I don’t.
Writing sad stuff puts me in such a funk, it’s like self-induced depression. So I avoid conflict at all cost, get my characters together in the first act, and whine the rest of the book about how my poor baby gays deserve their happily ever after (this is my fanfiction background talking). So whenever I get an idea that would be good for the plot but bad for the characters, I ignore it until it becomes clear that I don’t have a choice.
Conflict drives the plot — at some point I have to stop digging my heels in and just suck it up.
It’s almost funny how ingrained this is in my personal life too. The only person I pick fights with is my husband — I think it was Carmen in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants who said at some point that she only picked fights with the people closest to her because she knew they’d still love her afterwards. I must have read this at like, eighteen, and it still rings true to me fifteen years later.
I am terribly conflict-avoidant, even in contexts where I should speak up for my own good, or the good of marginalized communities. I need to get so much better at that, and I’m trying to work towards it, in person and in my writing, even though it’s hard work.
Lesson Three: It’s Not That Deep
It must have taken like three drafts for OPEN to get long enough to be deemed a novel and not just a novella. I’m naturally concise. I get an idea in my head and I lay it on paper in no more than one run-on sentence, and people look at me with ??? etched on their face, even though it sounds obvious to me because (obviously) I know what the heck I’m talking about.
Or like, I will think that my character’s motivations are evident, because they are in my head, but it turns out it never actually made its way on the page. I tend to scratch the surface of a scene, giving an overview of it, but rarely going in deep or delving into much detail.
In real life, I’m much the same. Whenever I talk to people, I stop myself before I can ramble on too long, convinced that details are not important and people don’t care. I dismiss myself with an eyeroll at my own words to avoid too many questions. This also ties in with my tendency to ignore my feelings (callback from Lesson One!) — I only graze the surface of my emotions, and never actually allow myself to dive in deep to analyze them.
This text is the closest I’ve been to introspection since therapy two years ago, and the fact that I’m laying all out for anyone to read is entirely out of character for me — or maybe it’s just character growth! Who knows?
I don’t actually know how to wrap this up. I need to do better and be better I guess? As I grow as a writer I also grow as a person?
Yeah, that’s good, let’s go with that.
I’ve surpassed the first step of acknowledging the issues, and I hope that, as I continue working on Load Game, I’ll be aware of these pitfalls and learn to avoid them, in writing and in my life.
Now, what with the pandemic, social unrest, and environmental catastrophies, I have the hardest time picturing the future, so I can’t exactly say where I see myself in one year, for OPEN’s second anniversary, but I dare hope I’ll have made a lot of progress on Load Game, and in my personal life, too.
If you’re still here, thanks for indulging my call-out session / self therapy, remember that growth is not linear and never stops, wash your hands, wear a mask and support queer, BIPOC, local creators and businesses!
Through my years as an author with a day job, I have had to learn to cultivate a work routine at home. It’s so easy, when you’re working for yourself and not a boss, to procrastinate, to push back deadlines because there’s nobody to keep you accountable. This tends to brew guilt, though, and then you get stuck in a spiral of feeling guilty about procrastinating, and then having anxiety about that guilt and then not being able to work because of the anxiety.
I have struggled with executive dysfunction, and, while it’s not so bad nowadays, I’ve had to try several methods to manage to get shit done. Lists, schedules, etc., and they’ve all worked for a while, until I started ignoring them and fell into a procrastinating spiral again.
My latest method is schedule blocking, and I feel like sharing it with you in case it might help someone else.
Basically I’ve determined 6 key categories of things I want/have to spend time on. I wouldn’t recommend using too many categories as you might get lost in them. For me, these categories are:
- Getting Ready
- Meal Plan
Some of these are not that long, but they need doing, so I felt it was important to include them so I don’t get stuck in a “I’ll get to this right after I finish X” type of situation. I’ve also only blocked a regular 9-5 workday, on my days off for my day job. Feel free to adapt this schedule to the hours that work best for you.
I decided how many hours needed to be allotted to each category, and the time of day where I felt the most productive for each one, and then I placed my blocks.
The idea is that I’m still making to-do lists, but instead of just begrudgingly staring at them and picking the easiest task haphazardly, I’m picking a task that fits the block I’m in.
You’ll notice that I included a block for hobbies. This is important. Make time for yourself where you don’t have to be productive, where you can read, play video games or watch TV, whatever it is. It’s essential, especially in trying times like these. The fact that it’s built into your schedule means you don’t feel guilty about not doing work during this time.
I used to feel guilty that I wasn’t reading much, but then whenever I would make time to read, I’d feel guilty I wasn’t working. The schedule blocking method helps alleviate a lot of guilt.
Once again, this is the method that works best for me right now, but I’m sure you can find a lot of other techniques out there. Try a bunch of them! Mix and match them! What works for someone might not work for you, and that’s okay. Feel free to share your own tips with me!
What matters, all the time but mostly in these hard times, is to be kind to yourself. Remember that it’s okay to be scared and anxious, and to feel unproductive. You do not have to be a productivity beast in the middle of a global pandemic. I’m just sharing these tips to help you if you feel like you need some structure.
Take care of yourself, I love you all so much, and I’m sending y’all the biggest hug from 6ft away.