For some reason, this seems to be the point of the Great American Novel: to render, in vivid detail, with beautiful prose, a life – to build that man or woman up, to set them on top of the world, to make a hero – the person we all wanted to be in our ambitious young years – a brilliant success in our chosen field. And then, to take it all away. To chronicle the downfall into misery. To see just how far that man or woman can lose themselves to the depths of despair. And maybe, by the end of the book, to give a little of it back – some light at the end of the long, dark tunnel. And that’s supposed to be enough.
Well, it’s not.
The book you write starts making promises the moment the words come rolling off the page, and if there’s one thing I’m fairly unforgiving of as a reader, it’s a dangled promise that’s never fulfilled. Some authors choose a heavy dose ambiguity, because, hey – that’s life, right? Nobody’s going to come floating down on a cloud and explain it to you. But walking the line of ambiguity is tough and in my humble opinion it pretty much guarantees you’re going to piss off at least 50% of your readers.
Is it the right thing to do?
*rant deflates into existential argument*
Obviously, I can’t answer that. Obviously the answer is going to be different for everyone. Maybe what it comes down to is just a simple direction of philosophy. Do you believe life has meaning? Do your characters believe it? What kind of meaning? Something grand that got swept aside for the little things? Sometimes that’s awesome. But all too often it feels like growing up and finding yourself in a dead end job and deciding you maybe need to make a change or two before you die, so you can remember what it was like to be happy, and, well… that’s a sad, pale reflection of the dreams that one once had.
*devolves further into pleading*
Look, I’m not demanding a Disney ending. I was recently illuminated as to the difference between Romance (the genre) and a book that may be romantic but is not Romance, and that is this: The Romance Must Have a Happily Ever After. I don’t read Romance, but I do happen to love a lot of stories with not-so-happy endings that were touted as examples of Not-A-Romance (Bridges of Madison County being one of them). I certainly don’t demand the Happily Ever After. But I really, really, really still want to feel like life is worth living when I put the book down.
Is that too much to ask?
I just have one plea. Just one. Please – for the love of bob – make it mean something.
“I think that novels tend to fail not when the characters are not vivid or ‘deep’ enough, but when the novel in question has failed to teach us how to adapt to its conventions, has failed to manage a specific hunger for its own characters, its own reality level. In such cases, our appetite is quickly disappointed, and surges wildly in excess of what we are provided, and we tend to blame the author, unfairly, for not giving us enough – the characters, we complain, are not alive or round or free enough.”
If you follow me on Twitter, you may have seen several tweets about an evil deadline I had last week. Long story short, as part of my day job, twice a year I put together a small magazine for a niche industry non-profit group. And by “put together”, I mean I write stories, edit stories from contributors, source photos for the articles, chase advertisers, oversee the design, and get the files ready to go to press. I have a wonderful small team that I work with, but most of the cat herding falls on my shoulders.
The nature of these kinds of magazine deadlines means everything tends to come in at the last minute. And since I have a little guy now, I can’t pull all-nighters like I used to. So when I heard a super-talented designer and production artist I used to work in corporate with had turned freelancer, I jumped at the chance to bring her on board.
Talking to her over the past couple of weeks reminded me of some of the struggles I had when I started freelancing. You have to go through an adjustment period if you’re used to getting a regular deposit in the bank every two weeks. I can’t speak for her, but I know lots of people (myself included) budgeted every last bit of that twice-monthly paycheque. Maybe some of it got put aside into savings, if things were going well. But generally, you paid your bills, and the rest got spent.
That kind of mindset doesn’t work very well when you’re freelancing, or running a business.
I haven’t had a full-time, regular paycheque job in over eight years, and I’m not going to say none of those years haven’t been bumpy. I did well enough in the beginning, mostly because I was able to keep my expenses to a minimum and live cheaply. But a couple of years ago, I ran into problems. I had to pick up a part-time job for a while (which, totally worth it as I gained new skills and contacts), and also managed to rack up a couple of credit cards worth of debt. Why? Basic life things. I had to replace a paid-for car, which meant adding a monthly car payment. Our rent was going up, to the point where it made more sense to buy a house than to continue renting. Husband changed jobs and was on training wages for several months. Just when things seemed to be under control again, hey, guess what! We had a baby!
All of that is kind of beside the point. The life things were contributing factors, but they weren’t the cause. The real cause was that I had to start treating my whole life like a business – ie, all of my finances, not just the freelance (“money in”) aspect. This is what I learned:
1. Financial independence is really important for artists. It’s hard to do the things you want to do without it. Ergo, getting financially sound is going to positively affect my art.
2. Attitude is everything.
3. Don’t be afraid to mix it up – diversity is the freelancer’s version of ‘safety in numbers.’
Number one may seem kind of self-explanatory, but I think it’s also easy for people to dismiss. And I can’t really discuss it without tying it in to number two.
I’m not dumb, but I’ll be the first to admit my brain doesn’t work with numbers all that easily. I understand concepts but I’ll screw up the basic addition. (I’ve always suspected I was mildly ‘numbers dyslexic’ and the internet has confirmed that this is a real thing. Yay internet diagnosis!) So one of the first things, the most important thing, was to get into the mindset that nobody else was going to manage my money for me. I needed to make a budget, track my expenses, get rid of the debt, and make the numbers work. ME.
It’s probably been the most empowering thing I’ve ever done in my life. Even if things went to shit again, I now have a plan. I have ways of making NEW plans as needed. I have numbers that back up my assumptions. The credit card debt is almost paid off. There’s money in the emergency fund account. I have an operating budget for the first time in my life!
In practical terms, yes, there were a few things we got rid of. We cut our cable in favor of Netflix. When the hubby hit a deer and wrote off my (again newly paid-off) car, I took the cash I had on hand plus insurance and bought a used car with no loan attached. We quit eating out in favor of cooking at home. I upped my hourly rate to cover the new babysitting & daycare expenses.
But really, a year and a half in, I can’t really tell you that I made any huge sacrifices or changes. The only thing I can look back for certain and say that changed, is that I started paying attention. I started tracking where the money went. I started deciding, ahead of time, if that was the best place for it to go. That one little shift meant every money decision I made from then onwards could be assessed to see if it was working toward my goals.
If you’re curious, here are a few of the sites that have really helped me wrap my head around this personal finance thing:
I started with Gail Vaz-Oxlade’s TV shows – Princess and Til Debt Do Us Part (you can watch them online, at least in Canada – not sure about the US). As simplistic as it might sound to the money experts out there, the part where they address a huge range of real family budgets (and how to fix them) was really fascinating. The attitude adjustments (or not) on Princess were telling as well – the ones who were able to adapt were the ones who were able to get their life back under control.
More than just getting out of debt, though, I started to realize that there are a lot of people for whom financial independence is a reality. Honestly, I don’t care if it’s a pie-in-the-sky goal – once I realized what it was, I knew it was something I wanted to work towards. I don’t know if I’ll ever reach that kind of financial independence, but being a freelancer, I already have the benefit of a lot of the FI lifestyle, so any further steps along the path are only going to help future me out. I get so damn excited about this stuff, I just love to share it:
Mr. Money Mustache – in case you enjoy a few f-bombs in your financial independence reading.
And as for number 3, part of the charm of being a freelancer is that you get to decide what kind of work you want to do. So while I just finished a big print project, I’ve got websites and video editing to start on next. I’m putting together a display for a local tradeshow so I can hopefully get some more photo shoots booked this summer. And I have this writing thing going as a side project. I love the variety, and diversity is a great help to the bottom line. It’s the same as being an indie author with multiple books out. The more income streams you have, the more chances you have to see what sticks, see what you love doing (maybe not what you expect it to be), and see where the two can meet.
Why am I sharing this? Honestly, this isn’t the post I set out to write. I was planning to blather on about how to find out what kind of work you want to do, why you should work with people who respect your contributions, being confident about charging enough for your work, that kind of stuff. (Eh… future post, maybe.) I guess mostly I’m sharing because I read a lot of other authors’ blogs – both self- and trad-pubbed – and all of them, especially the self-published authors, emphasize that if you’re going to succeed, you have to treat it like a business. It’s true, and this is my attempt at a small contribution toward that mindset.
On my upcoming schedule this week: press checks. Gotta love the smell of ink in the morning.
P.S. – In case you needed an earworm today, here’s an awesome Annie parody video made by a bunch of freelance actors in New York:
There’s going to be a few changes around here in the months to come. It’s not earth-shattering news by any means, but I wanted to make it official: I’m changing my pen name from Christian Frey to Christi Frey. Here’s why.
When I started writing fiction, I, like many others, decided to devise an alter-ego. There were a few reasons behind this. Firstly, I wanted to have six degrees of online separation between serious-work-me and me-the-artiste. Why? Because I’m a freelancer who already does print design, web design, video/photography, and non-fiction writing. I didn’t want to throw MOAR TALENTZ into the mix, confuse the hell out of paying clients, and dilute my “working” brand with floofy speculative fiction stuff. Secondly, I wanted to avoid well-meaning pats on the head from family and others I interact with in meat-space. Because, just because.
So I had this urge to experiment with a genderly-ambiguous online name. It was originally a typing error – I was going to go with Christina and I mis-typed it as Christian when I signed up for the domain name. Well, hell, I thought – why not. It’s easier to be taken seriously as a writer if you have a male-sounding name, isn’t it?
I tried it out for a while – I signed up for twitter as @ChristianFreyCA – but then I started meeting people. And I like my twitter friends very much, and I felt that I wasn’t being honest with them.
I’m not a guy. I’m not transgender. I’m kind of a tom boy, but I’m so far from butch it’s not even funny. I’m just a girl who likes her jeans and her boots, loves being outdoors and active, and has a physical urge to pummel anyone who tries to treat me like a delicate flower.
Having said that, though, I do definitely have some gender issues, and they mainly stem from stifling what I’d say is a fairly fierce competitive drive when I was younger. I grew up in a small farming community, and there were a lot of things that girls and women just didn’t do. And I can’t really say it was because people were prejudiced; they weren’t, not in the stereotypical “back-woods hick” kind of way you might be imagining. It was just the times. Girls there do a lot of the things now that they didn’t do when I was young, like play on hockey teams or be altar servers for Catholic mass. And we didn’t have the internet back then to show us any alternative role models – our high school got its first internet-connected computer when I was in Grade 11. (Yep, just one – because we were on dial-up, and out in the boonies, which meant browsing the internet was a long-distance call. Which was not cheap in those days.)
At some point, I decided that if the options available for girls were “house wife, farm wife, mother, grocery store clerk, teacher, nurse, or bank teller,” then there was no way in hell I was going to get roped into being a girl.
I’ve pretty much gone forth and lived that way ever since. I’ve simply ignored attempts to put me in the “females” box – or any other boxes, thank you very much. There’s this part of my brain that’s one-quarter psychopath, and that is the part that says “Why the fuck would you care what anyone else thinks? Go forth and do as you please.” In large part, this has served me well, though I had to learn to adjust it a bit when I got married. (Luckily, the husband has a very functional sense of humor.)
I remember a conversation I had with an ex-boyfriend where we were discussing future vehicles – I was terribly disappointed to find out his dream vehicle was a sports car.
“Really?” I said. “A car? Well I guess I’ll have to buy my own truck then.” (Because trucks are needed for hauling horses in trailers, obviously.) “I’ll be the guy,” I said, tongue-in-cheek, “and you can buy the car and be the girl.”
He gave me a sour look. “Well someone has to be,” he said.
I took a weird sense of pride in that comment.
But that was then, and this is now. And no matter how much you may rightly argue that there’s still a lot of change yet to be had, it’s very different than it used to be even ten years ago. The internet feminist movement, the fantastic women authors whose blogs I follow, who challenge my preconceived notions on a daily basis – J.C. Lillis, Kameron Hurley, The Undead Duo, The Bloggess, Lindsay Buroker, Rachel Aaron, and an honorable mention to Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds – they aren’t afraid of putting their girly pants on and going forth to kick butt. So why should I be?
This is all a work in progress. There are a lot of labels I’m still not comfortable claiming – but that has as much to do with my loathing of labels as anything else, and that’s a post for another day.
A while back one of the writers I follow on Twitter posted a pic of her calendar on which she tracks daily actions including writing time, exercise, and several other items.
That looks torturous, I thought. Thank god I don’t do dumb things like track productivity.
Let me now add this to the long list of things I judged as silly on first look, and later adopted with glee. Because, here is the thing that I came to understand, viscerally – not in my head, but in my bones – writing a novel is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. And I’d been trying to sprint. I’d get to a chapter I was excited to write and I’d drop everything and write like mad for a week. I’d come up for air at the end of it, exhausted, behind in my freelance work (and short of cash a few weeks later), sick of the project, and probably stuck in a place I didn’t know how to resolve. Drop the project for one to three months, have stroke of inspiration, repeat cycle.
It sucked. (I partially blame the November-fuelled hubris that says you can write a novel in a month. NaNoWriMo, I’m looking at you.) After my last writing binge, I took a good, hard look at just how long it was going to take me to write a full and proper book. I’m a pantser and a slow writer besides. I do all the things “they” say you’re not supposed to do, like edit as I go along. I like writing that way. And it doesn’t inhibit me from tossing out whole sections when they aren’t working the way I need them to, so right now, I don’t feel inclined to change. Is it wasted writing? Hell no. It’s good practice – I may not keep it, but no effort to improve craft is wasted effort, I say.
The conclusion I came to is that, yes, it would be more efficient to do a little bit every day. Because you know what? This is about more than writing a novel. This is not about the “things” I want to produce. This is about giving myself space and time to be CREATIVE. To PLAY. To develop skills over the course of years. A lifetime, if need be. So I got out my trusty wall calendar, and I’ve been making red X’s for days when I do some writing, and blue X’s for days when I do some drawing or sketchbook time.
And you know what? IT’S WORKING PRETTY AWESOME.
I don’t have a long string of pretty X’s like some writers I know. I only have a few hours of uninterrupted computer time after the baby goes to bed, and sometimes I need that time to catch up on client work. But I can see on my calendar that I haven’t been able to work on my writing all week, so I don’t beat myself up that I haven’t gotten any farther on the project for a few days. And I’m actually proud of myself when I get an X up on the board – there will be longer strings of X’s in time. I want those little f*ckers. I get a little hit of validation every day, and it’s better than the validation I used to look for from a finished project, because whenever I finish something, it’s inevitably not as good as I hoped it would be. But it doesn’t actually matter any more.
It’s easy to feel like making tiny tweaks [to your system] has minimal overall impact. That’s because we often feel pressure to achieve something concretely noticeable, in so doing overlooking the value of minor victories.
In his newsletter, James Clear shares the concept of “the aggregation of marginal gains.” If you improve every minute thing that relates to a project, goal, or product by just 1 percent, all those small gains add up over time to a massive win:
“Most people love to talk about success (and life in general) as an event. We talk about losing 50 pounds or building a successful business or winning the Tour de France as if they are events. But the truth is that most of the significant things in life aren’t stand-alone events, but rather the sum of all the moments when we chose to do things 1 percent better or 1 percent worse.”
In another article, Clear goes on to say that “the system is greater than the goal.” This is a statement I can get behind. He adds, “Goals suggest you can control things you have no control over,” and makes the distinction that, while goals are good for planning where you want to go, systems are the vehicle that will actually get you there.
Clear got the seed idea for his article from a piece by Dilbert creator Scott Adams in the Wall Street Journal. Adams speaks to the psuedo-validation we get from goals that I mentioned above:
“…you will spend every moment until you reach the goal—if you reach it at all—feeling as if you were short of your goal. In other words, goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary.
“If you achieve your goal, you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize that you just lost the thing that gave you purpose and direction. Your options are to feel empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of your success until they bore you, or to set new goals and re-enter the cycle of permanent presuccess failure.”
I’m making an early New Year’s toast: To long strings of X’s in my future.
A couple of years ago, I had an idea for a sweeping epic of a fantasy novel. Not, like, GRRM epic. By any stretch of the imagination. But still, I envisioned it being either somewhere around a 100,000 doorstopper or maybe 150,000 split into a two-part novel. I drafted a lot of scenes. I mapped out a bunch of plot lines. And I realized I was biting off a really ambitious project that might take a long time to get to the light of day, and I might not be happy with how it turned out when it was done.
So I decided to write a practice novel.
It turns out there is (almost) no such thing as a practice novel.
They are ALL practice novels.
This one – HARTHORN – is a lot more, shall we say, bite-sized. I think it will top out somewhere between 60,000 and 80,000 words. There is only a single plot line which is fairly straightforward, and it’s geared towards a younger audience. (Not equating YA with simple. But for me, and within the context of fantasy novels, this is a less ambitious book.)
But you know that old saying? It might be simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy? This is true, and applicable to novel writing, I am finding. And – full disclosure – something inside me hardens with rejection when people say “BUT (life, writing, raising children, xxx) IS HAAAARD,” as if acknowledging that I occasionally have moments of wanting to throw in the towel is a virus that will start out annoying and whiny like chicken pox but could eventually consume you like the end-of-the-world-apocalypse-zombie-flu. Because it should be easy, shouldn’t it? When everything clicks, and it flows, and you’re IN THE ZEN ZONE and YEAH MOTHERCHICKENPLUCKERS*!!! You know, the writing high.
*totally not the word I actually use.
At any rate, what I’m trying to say (badly), is that I have at the same time an immensely stubborn iron will to really just *not acknowledge* (and thereby exclude from my reality) anything that seems like it will get in the way of my goals, and at the same time, have dealt with a really crippling fear of failure, aka perfectionism.
So back to the practice novel. I finished a first draft in, um, I’m going to say late in 2013. Then started with the rewrites. I’m about 1/3 of the way through the rewrites, which I almost have to do inch by inch. I mean, I know theoretically I should keep going, but (see above), I get a gut feeling when things aren’t yet where I want them to be and I keep going over the same 1/3 of the book.
So where does this leave me? Pretty much with a panic attack. I think it’s where I want it, but is it good? Does it suck? HOW THE HELL DO I KNOW? I’VE BEEN STARING AT IT FOR BLOODY DAYS NOW.
At any rate, I decided to get some perspective, and it’s been the best thing I could have done. I have engaged the services of one Julie Hutchings (half of the Undead Duo, bonus), editor and writing-coach-slash-cheerleader-with-an-uzi extraordinaire. You may be comfortable finding other types of feedback for your work. But if you’re stuck like I was, find someone who’s opinion you trust, and DO IT.
So, with much preamble and without further ado, here are five things I’ve learned so far on my practice novel:
1. That FEELING? The one that twinges in your little writer gut and says either YES I HAVE FOUND WHAT’S HONEST HERE, or NO, YOU ARE TOTALLY SKATING ON PLOT AND FALLING BACK ON CLICHÉS AND TRYING TO SQUIRM OUT OF THINGS, so, REWRITE. This is still, and always, the prime thing that I need to strive for.
2. It’s a lot less painful to rip out and re-arrange scenes than I imagined it would be.
3. It’s harder to fill in the little connecting bits around the edges after ripping out and re-arranging said scenes than I thought it would be.
4. You are going to lose a little something in the voice that the first draft had, but it’s OK. Hold the voice in your heart and it will shine on even as the novel deepens and grows away from you and takes on a life of its own. The voice will still be there, like five-year-old you watching thirty-five-year-old you watching kids play.
5. There is no such thing as a practice novel.
Aaaand to make it an even half dozen…
6. I will never, ever, ever be a fast writer. GRRM and I have that in common.
Yes, YOU. Now that summer is over (I know it’s still technically August, but trust me, if you live here, you can *feel* it – summer is over. Sigh.)… ahem. Now that summer is over, folks are headed back to school, back to work, and normal get-things-done time resumes.
I have a few things I’ve been working on over the summer, and I figure it is high time to start sharing! First of all, you may notice a new button over in the sidebar –> It says HARTHORN and it is the title of my current Work In Progress. I’ve dubbed the site “A notebook for a novel-in-progress” as we are in the stage of Serious Edits. It was a bit of a leap of faith for me to actually post some writing… but I love this excerpt I’ve posted and I hope to start gathering some folks who would like to stay updated on the progress of things. So, if you would like to be a Beta Reader, an ARC reviewer, a Cover Revealer or a General Cheerleader, enter your email address here and we will add you to the mailing list! Thank you LOVE YOU LOTS!!
Second, I HAVE NEW ART. Quite a while back, my dear buddy J.C. Lillis posted several awe-inducing photos of random finds in a New Jersey flea market (7 Fantastically Weird and Terrible Things I Saw at an Indoor Flea Market in New Jersey (Part 1)). One of the photos was a bunch of pins, and one of the pins says “all i want is a little more than i’ll ever get,” which, as J.C. comments, “inspired a full seven minutes of soul-searching by the hot-dog stand once I let it sink in.” (Seriously, though, you should check out the rest of the pins. It’s, like, seventies gold mine.)
I loved that saying so much I made art with it. And I have a new digital pen tablet that I’m trying to get the hang of, so it was perfect timing. There are two versions: Primavera (the green one), and Inverno (the grey one).
It’s been pretty quiet here on the blog lately. I blame work. *glares at work*. You may also be able to tell I’ve been spending a lot of time on Twitter, usually when feeding the baby or rocking him to sleep. One of the best perks of reading on an i-Device is the ability to read in the dark. It’s keeping me happy, at any rate.
Anyhoo, I was over at the Discoverability Project page doing some updates, and thought I’d share some of my initial observations from almost three months in.
It pretty much all boils down to “word of mouth recommendations from friends”. Especially if you include Twitter, Goodreads reviews, and book blog reviews as “word of mouth recommendations,” and I do, because the way I find books on all of those platforms is… recommendations from friends. Usually on Twitter. Sometimes I will also check out tweets from publishers that I’m following.
If you price your Kindle version at $10.00 or higher, you fall into a price category that puts you in competition with all the current hot-listed trad-pubbed books that I really, really want to read. The ones I will use bookstore gift certificates to purchase in paperback so I can lend them to my friends (sometimes I’ll wait and order a used copy for $5 or less from Amazon). Most trad-pubbed mid-list books fall into this category, which is really too bad, because I’d check more of them out otherwise.
Keep in mind I don’t fall into the category of “voracious fiction reader”. I do read a lot, but I tend to read a lot of non-fiction (both online articles and books – currently reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow). This means I’m terribly choosy about the fiction books I do pick up. They either have to be cheap enough that it’s no skin off my back to check them out, or one of those books that EVERYONE is talking about. Or have a really, really good download sample.
Which brings me to my last point. Download samples on Amazon are TOO SHORT. (Granted, their easy return feature mitigates this somewhat. But hear me out.) One of the first e-books I ever purchased (in PDF, no less, because I didn’t have the Kindle app on my phone at the time) was Catherine Ryan Howard’s Mousetrapped. I wasn’t looking for a book to read at the time – I was checking out Smashwords, this new publishing platform I’d heard about. I got sucked into the story, and was half-way through the book when the sample ended. Of course, I had to buy it at that point. This has made me an uber-fan of longer samples. Because really, who is going to get halfway through a story and NOT make a purchase so they can finish the rest? If you’ve read that far, you probably want to see how it ends. There’s no downside for authors that I can see.
By the way, if anyone wants to join me in tracking all the ways they’ve discovered books lately (public service to authors I guess? personal curiosity?) you can read more about how it works here.
Into the Woods is a clever, appealing show — appealing to me, anyway — because it’s not afraid to be completely obvious. “Going into the woods” is the beginning of everyone’s story, and “the woods” are wherever your story begins. While you’re there, you encounter monsters and beautiful maidens and princes. Then you get what you want, and find out it’s nothing like what you imagined. The monsters turn out to be cool, the maidens to be weird losers, the princes to be dicks… You lose everything you have that can be lost, and find out who you are when you have to live without it.