Favorite Podcasts for Writers

The last post from me covered favorite writing tools. But I forgot one tool: podcasts! So here is the extra special bonus podcast post.

Since I’m mostly alone–all day, every day–I like to listen to other voices. But TV is pure distraction for me. I can’t have it on in the background, and I’ve never been able to think well when looking at multiple screens.

Podcasts are different. The best ones are like listening in on the conversations of smart, helpful people. The fact that they’re all strangers doesn’t matter. I have several must-listen podcasts (Welcome to Nightvale! Roderick on the Line!). But here I’ll just mention three that apply most to writers.

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The Rocking Self Publishing Podcast: This is the most relevant one on the list (since I’m a writer who self-publishes). Simon Whistler finds guests who represent a variety of perspectives to discuss many aspects of writing: working creatively, managing output, publishing, marketing, etc. Some names you might recognize: Hugh Howey, Johanna Penn, Russell Blake, and others. Each show addresses one specific topic–but even those that might not seem to apply to everyone (non-fiction writing, for example, which I don’t do) still offer great advice that’s broadly applicable to writing and publishing. Simon does his homework, asks great questions, and stays on point. For added value, he’s British, which makes the show exactly 28% smarter just because of the accent. (That’s how that works, right?)

Why not start by listening to this one about not looking to outliers (with Hugh Howey)?

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Back to Work: This is not a podcast on writing or publishing, but it is loosely geared toward the idea of working. If that sounds vague to you, you are so right. Though the show is nominally about productivity, the two hosts, Dan and Merlin, get derailed by any number of important topics: comic books, music, parenting, germ theory, or the sociological experiment that is Florida. But it’s funny as hell, and Merlin usually manages to pull himself together by the end to deliver a practical mediation on some topic germane to the concept of work. Often it’s about office work, dealing with management, or deciding what work you want to do with your life. But some episodes also cover more esoteric issues like agency or creativity. Merlin excels at taking all those nebulous ideas about work that we’ve all had, and then nailing down the core of them so they can’t wiggle off the examining table and back into the dark recesses of our minds before we’ve at least identified the problem. Dan will then diffidently explain how the Buddha approached the same issue. And did I mention the comic books? They talk about comic books. A LOT.

Why not start by listening to this one about the Vocational Wheel?

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Homework: Another show on the trusty 5by5 network, Homework is what Back to Work might be if Dan and Merlin actually stayed on topic (except for the mandatory 5by5 comic book aside, which is here too). Not just a clever name, Homework is literally a podcast about working from home, and therefore is useful for anyone who does any sort of freelancing or creative solo work. Most of the episodes take on a very specific topic. Workspace! Sleeping habits! Scheduling! Billing! Accounting! For writers, not all topics will be relevant. But if you self-publish, you are a small business owner, so most of it is stuff you’ve worried about. Aaron and Dave are delightful nerds who want to help.

Why not start by listening to this one about working for exposure?

If you’re a writer like me–or if you enjoy comic books–check out a few episodes of these podcasts. Do you have any other podcasts you find useful as a writer or worker? Share it in the comments…

Where Do You Write?

I can write just about anywhere. Noisy cafés, libraries, airplanes, waiting rooms, the train on my way into work, sitting in the park, alone at home, in a room full of people who are chatting and watching TV, outside on the patio listening to the birds chirp. Some unwanted distractions are easier to tune out than others, but I’ve learned to be flexible. Because sometimes, if you want to get anything written, you simply don’t have a choice.

It’s easy to fall in love with this romantic notion of only being able to channel the muse when the stars have properly aligned over your perfect writing environment. But the reality for me and many of my fellow crazy-scheduled writers is this: the only way to get any writing done is to use whatever scraps of free time you have, regardless of where those scraps of time are taking place. That, and my muse is a surly plumber named Jim Bob. The guy does good work, but he never shows up when he says he will. He sure as hell doesn’t care about star alignments or my preferred writing atmosphere. So lately, most of my writing has been getting done here:

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I’d like to describe the train’s interior as retro, but sadly, they just haven’t updated it since 1968.

But, given a choice, where would I prefer to write? A comfy place with a pretty view. And as luck would have it, my sunroom meets those qualifications:

sunroom backyard

I can curl up in my papasan and watch a gorgeous-looking hawk land on a tree, perch there and be awesome, and then fly off. And when I don’t feel like sitting, I can plop my laptop onto the room’s pub-style table and stand. We’ll come back to that standing thing.

Alas, the sunroom isn’t perfect. It can get noisy as all hell in there when it rains, and the view is less awesome in the winter. That’s when it’s nice to be able to retreat to my office. When the spousal unit and I started looking for a house, I knew exactly what I wanted for my office—a big-ass desk and a place to display all of my geeky toys and collectibles. And I got it:

old-desk office-toys

But I found that the more time I spent standing at the table down in the sunroom, the less comfortable it was to sit at my big-ass desk for extended periods of time. I got a balance ball chair, which was an improvement, but I would still get too fidgety after a while. So now, the big-ass desk is gone, and I have this:

standing-desk

An adjustable height desk so I can alternate between sitting and standing. I’ve only had it for a little over a month now, but so far I love it. Add to that the health benefits, and I’m a happy writer.

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Yes . . . yes. This is a standing desk, and we will thrive. We will rule over all this desk, and we will call it . . . This Desk.

But, the real point of all this is that, even when I’m an unhappy writer stuck on a noisy, crowded commuter train, the work still gets done.

Some Thoughts on Revising

I’ve been revising. A lot. I recently sold a short story I’d started in 2006 to an amazing anthology, and even though I’d rewritten the piece a number of times in the intervening years, it still wasn’t quite right.

Only I’d gotten too close to see what wasn’t working, and so had my critique partners, who’d read a few drafts. So enter the wonderful anthology editors, who got right to the point and showed me exactly what needed to go.

Once I got that story cleaned up and turned in, I moved on to another piece I’d written last year. The Sirens had critiqued it, but I’d never gotten around to revising. Now that I am, it’s amazing how spot-on and vital others’ comments can be in helping you fix your own story.

All that said, here are some thoughts I’ve compiled over the past few months.

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  • You absolutely need others’ eyes. I don’t care if you’re a gigantic name splashed over the New York Times bestseller list for forty weeks in a row with rights sold all over the world. (May we all be so lucky.) You need others to show you where holes remain in your work, where you can tighten things, where you can and should cut.
  • Trust your own writing. In the anthology story, I’d repeatedly shown a character doing/feeling something and then gone ahead and explained it. (To be fair, a lot of this was holdover from previous drafts. See above about being too close to to the material.) If you’ve done your job right, you don’t need to explain these things to your readers. They’ll get it from context.
  • Sometimes even those of us who tend to write in more poetic voices can have the most impact by saving those poetic images for the actual magic/supernatural moments in our stories. Not always, but it’s something to consider.
  • One clear image is much sharper and more effective than a jumble of two or three. That undercuts their power.
  • You don’t automatically have to kill your darlings—you should like what you’ve written!—but you do need to make them work for you. If you can’t find a way to do that, then yes, cut them. I’ve heard it said that each scene should either develop character or advance plot or establish setting (ideally all three), but I’d add that this pertains to every sentence, too. Make your pretty prose/cool character/awesome idea hold its weight!
  • Sometimes the right elements are there in the story; they’re just in the wrong place. Moving them around and applying the putty of transitions, etc., can often be just the thing you need.
  • Wonderful, unusual ideas are exciting, but they need to be supported by an emotional payoff in some way. Not every character has to be likable, but the reader does need to be able to form some sort of connection to them. Basically, know what the emotional stakes underpinning your story are, and make them clear.
  • Your story doesn’t have to be absolutely linear, but for the most part, unless you’re doing something experimental, the reader needs a bit of foreshadowing and the suggestion of structure. You want them to think, Of course it would end that way!—not because it’s predictable, but because subtle clues were sprinkled throughout, creating a sense of inevitability. Otherwise, the ending feels unearned and confusing, and the reader goes away unsatisfied. Know where your story is going, and lay a path to get there.

So those are some of my musings on the process. Do you agree? Disagree? Have anything to add? Tell us in the comments.

Favorite Writing Tools

Today, I want to share some real nuts and bolts writing stuff. Below, I’m going to talk about my top five writing tools. Not all of these will work for everyone, but if nothing else, I hope it make you think about your own writing process and how you can improve it (and we can always improve, no matter how good we are).

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Byword: I love Byword. It’s a distraction-free writing app, and it really is just that—tons of white space, and very little in the way of features (it only works on iThings, but there are similar programs for PCs). It’s the app I open in the early stages of a project. Byword is designed to keep you in the present moment. Lines of text fade from black to pale grey just as soon as you complete them. It encourages you to just keep writing—not to reread or critique what you’ve just done. I find that writing thousands of words is almost effortless with Byword. After I have that first chunk of the story down, I’ll transfer it to Pages or another more complex writing app (Scrivener, Ulysses, etc) to deal with the text there. Byword is unwieldy for detailed editing of large pieces. But for pure “get ‘er done” free writing, it’s fantastic.

Duotrope: I am not particularly good at record keeping on my own (read: I suck at it), so Duotrope is a perfect tool for me. With it, I can track my story submissions in a tidy, efficient way. As a bonus, the Duotrope database of market listings is extremely handy (though definitely not comprehensive). Since starting with Duotrope, I have a much better handle on my submissions process. I’m able to strategize which markets to aim for by type (pro, semi-pro, etc, for example), and to know which markets are open for submissions and when. I’m way smarter about timeliness too—when I get a rejection, I simply log it and submit the story to the next market on my list. In a way, Duotrope makes me more professional and less…um, emotional about my submissions. And that’s well worth it. Duotrope is usable for free, but much more of its functionality kicks in when you subscribe. (Caveat: Duotrope is geared to toward writers who will be submitting pieces to other markets. If you’re only writing novels, say, or if you’re self-publishing everything you do, Duotrope probably isn’t for you.)

RescueTime: I started using this app earlier this year. I was hesitant to install it, because I’m wary of “metrics”. So often crunchy data look impressive but tell you absolutely nothing useful. But RescueTime has improved my awareness of my work habits in a real way. It tracks everything you do on your computer and simply records it (with the paid version, you can set RescueTime to block the internet and other distractions for a set amount of time as well). It’s best to install RescueTime and then forget you installed it for a week or so. Don’t change your habits—just let RescueTime watch you work (Hal-like) and get some data collected. Then you can start looking at all the pretty charts RT generates. It’s eye-opening. You’ll see exactly how many minutes you spend in your writing applications, as well as email and individual websites. I was surprised to discover that I didn’t spend nearly as much time of Facebook as I thought (it only feels like forever). However, I spent way more time reading news articles of dubious import (click bait, anyone?). On the bright side, RT posts encouraging notes when you hit positive goals.

Timer: as in, an actual timer. Sometimes it helps to have that outside reminder that the clock is literally ticking. I don’t use a timer every day. But when I’m having a terrible time focusing, I’ll set the timer for fifteen minutes and say “I’m just going to write for fifteen minutes. DEAD PEOPLE can write for fifteen minutes.” That short, targeted goal often helps to break me out of my focus funk. And when the timer dings, I just crank it again…or keep on writing, if my practice has kicked in. Personally, I like those old-fashioned timers that simply go ding at the end. However, any timer app can work just fine. The point is letting yourself be ruled by the timer long enough to get you in the flow.

Tea: Yeah, I’m getting real high tech here. A near constant supply of tea is invaluable for my writing, and not just for the caffeine. The warm mug is so useful for de-chilling fingers that just typed 1000 words! The comforting aroma of Barry’s, or Yorkshire Gold, or PG Tips (all bagged—I’m no aristocrat, people) definitely helps put me in a proper mindset to write. Also, it does have that nice caffeine…[Jocelyn heads off to make another cup of tea]

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Stranger in a Strange Land: How to Take Your Reader to New Worlds

In the summer of 2007, on the first day of my first week of the Odyssey Fantastic Fiction Writing Workshop (an excellent program that was well worth blowing my savings at the time and living without income for six weeks,) our teacher and fearless leader Jeanne Cavelos led a fascinating discussion on what unique expectations readers bring to speculative fiction as opposed to realist genres. One thing she noted was that speculative readers (scifi/fantasy/horror) are looking for an experience of estrangement. They like being immersed in a world or experience that they don’t fully understand and then filling in the pieces from context. I know this is true for me, and I bet it’s true for a lot of you who are following this blog as well.

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I dig estrangement. I love the idea of exploring strange new worlds, and when I travel, one of my favorite things is to just get lost and see where I end up. Wanting something completely different was one thing that brought me to Japan to live and teach in spring of 2010. I’d studied Japanese off and on, and though circumstances prevented me from my dream of living Japan for many years, when I had the opportunity, I jumped in whole hog and had the time of my life.

As a foreigner living in a place where English was often not spoken, I had to learn to live and work in my second language (and second culture). I was also partially illiterate and the system of measurement was in metric, which really messed me up because I never knew how faraway things were or what the temperature really was. Much of my daily life was about picking up thing from context and challenging my own assumptions about how the world was supposed to work. In short, I was living estrangement. To add to the fun, after three years when I went home in spring, 2013, I was once again a stranger in a strange land as my habits, assumptions, and life were out of step with that of my family and friends. Within a month or so, I had adjusted back to my life in the States, but the experience lingers.

Now, a year later, I’m sitting under a kotatasu in a hostel in Sapporo, Japan, having returned for a one month visit. Returning to a country with a vastly different culture has gotten me thinking again about estrangement and how it works in fiction, and like someone who makes stuff up for a living and expects random strangers to believe it at least for some time and pages, I’m going to spin some theories about estrangement and then give some ideas on how to apply them to your own writing. Disclaimer: like much of my life in Japan, I’m winging it. There are two types of estrangement that I think are important to discuss and apply when thinking of how to construct cultures and societies different from your own in fiction. I will call them Category 1 and Category 2.

Category 1 has to do with taking an extreme or opposing viewpoint to a binary that exists in your culture.

For example: Cultural assumption: Woman are biologically made to bear and raise children and have to struggle to be equal to men in non-domestically related work.

Response: I will write a world where men are seen in that light, whether it’s by a change in male anatomy or an idea that women bear the children and the men stay in the house to raise them, etc. Or I’ll make my main character exist in a culture where this assumption doesn’t exist so you see about 50/50% division of careers (either in or out of the home). This is often done to great (and not so great) effect in SF, Fantasy and even Horror fiction.

Living in a world where there is a core cultural assumption that exists on the opposite of a binary than your own is quite estranging. For example, in my second year of teaching at Japanese Elementary schools, I came head to head with this sort of cultural binary when I decided that I wanted to incorporate phonics education into my work with the students. Though my classes were conversation based, because I worked at six schools and taught grades 1-6, I didn’t get a lot of time to work with my students, especially grades 1-4. I knew that after elementary school, they would be moved to a heavily reading and grammar based Junior High school educational model, and it seemed to me that the faster I could get them reading, the easier time they’d have retaining what they’d already learned, interacting with written English outside of class, and in their future education when they left me. I’d come to this thought both through training at my company and other reading I’d done on EFL education. At five of my six schools, I had a great deal of flexibility in lesson planning and execution, so incorporating phonics wasn’t really a problem (beyond my own learning curve in presenting it).

At my sixth school, however, they had a well-established and excellent curriculum for teaching English, and I was actually and only an assistant. I’d assumed, with this school’s really strong commitment to teaching English, that once I presented the benefits of incorporating five or so minutes of phonics pronunciation education into what they were doing, it would be a no brainer and I was really excited to see how the students at this school, who already had an intensive English curriculum, would improve with this addition of phonics.

Alas, it was not to be. I was frankly bewildered at the abrupt rejection of the idea and assumed it was because my Japanese wasn’t strong enough to effectively present the idea. I had a moment with one of the school advisers, a woman who spoke perfect English and whose opinion I deeply respected, and presented the idea again. She also said no, and when I asked why, she said, “and if our students improve so much from learning this, what about their Junior High school teacher next year? How will she be able to handle the difference in skill level between our students and her other students? That will be very difficult for her.”

Mind…blown…

I realized suddenly that this was a clear example of a cultural assumption coming in at the opposite side of the individualism vs. collectivism binary that we often see in writings about Japan (and we often see over-romanticized and oversimplified in my experience). I’m an individualist, raised in an individualist culture. Those kids were “mine” and I wanted them to be the best, period. I didn’t (and still don’t, tbh) care about how difficult it makes the Junior High School teacher’s life, and my cultural assumption was, “if I can teach my students to do something better, then this makes me a better teacher and thus I am successful at my job.”

Confronting a world where individualism wasn’t naturally favored was highly estranging for me. I also realized that there had been a lot of very subtle things that were truly different in my daily life as a part of coming at the binary from the opposite side that I simply hadn’t noticed. It was shown in how decisions were made at the school, for example, which students in each grade were selected for having produced the best calligraphy in the new year (a complex, time consuming group effort that had bewildered me at the time).

The individualism vs. collectivism binary is something that we understand culturally, though we certainly skew strongly to one side of it in the US and many Western cultures. Because it’s a binary that exists in our culture, which is why I placed it under Category 1. Here’s some good approaches for writing Category 1 estrangement in my experience:

Step 1:  Take a binary that you take for granted in your culture. If you’re American, just watch any political speech during a Presidential campaign season if you’re stuck for ideas.

Step 2: Challenge it. For example: Democracy is the shining light of freedom (what if it’s not?); We want all of our children to be well educated (what if your made up culture doesn’t; what if they only want certain types of children to be educated or what if they don’t want anyone to be educated?); In order to lead a county, you must be the most patriotic (what if it’s the opposite?), etc. If you don’t like politics, you can always look at fashion magazines instead. What if thin isn’t attractive? What if light skin and long hair isn’t favored? Etc. All of these things are different and create a feeling of a different world, but all of these things exist within your own existing assumptions and cultural binaries, hence they are Category 1.

Category 2, in my mind, is bringing in cultural assumptions that exist out of established binaries. In truth, these aren’t any different to write than challenging Category 1 assumptions, but they are more difficult to find because you really have to think OUTSIDE of your own boxes. For example: the binary Men vs. Women doesn’t take into account the concept of fluid or different genders outside of male/female. The moment you create a third or a fourth gender, or a period of life where people are not seen to have gender, you are no longer taking a position within an existing binary, but instead creating a truly different cultural assumption. Note, I’m saying gender here and not sex, though you can certainly create a sex based biological difference between non male/female genders, I think it’s equally, if not more, estranging to create multiple genders outside of obvious (to us) biological differences.

An example from my life in Japan that really brought this concept to life for me was the experience of living for three years in a place where monotheism was not the norm. If you grow up in the US, whether or not you are polytheistic, you live in a larger culture that assumes (Judeo/Christian) monotheism as the norm. Further, this binary’s opposite in the USA is atheism. In short, there is literally no room made for polytheism or animism (or other ‘isms’) in everyday life in the States. This assumption of monotheism (and its opposite being atheism) permeates every aspect of our lives. When we sneeze, we don’t say “Gods bless you.” Only one God blesses America. When you’re surprised, it’s “Oh my God!” or “My gosh” if you think the first one is blasphemous. Do you want to enjoy a feeling of estrangement? Try explaining the meaning of these expressions to a classroom full of students or a group of friends who have no assumption of monotheism (and no particular interest in it beyond the academic). Try explaining curse words and the Devil. Then listen to your students explain their cultural and religious traditions and their relationship to their Gods. Try living in a world where Christmas is a dating holiday and people rush to KFC for their Christmas chicken dinner.

One very interesting cultural experience I had here was attending church with my Brazilian friends. As members of the minority religion, my Brazilian Christian friends had to travel an hour to find a church that was their denomination, which happened to be in a building in the middle of a rice field. (Lots of buildings are in the middle of rice fields where I lived in Japan.) Contrast this to temples, which are a dime a dozen (there were two within walking distance of my apartment) and on Japanese holidays they are packed with young and old alike. The Church was also full, mostly with foreigners whose religion was as thought about by mainstream Japanese culture as often as we in the States think about Shintoism. Fantasy novels often have polytheistic cultures, but I can’t think of that many we see in SF, though Battlestar Galactica, the TV series, comes to mind. In my SF reading experience, if you have a religion in SF, especially among human beings, it’s monotheistic (and generally recognizably Judeo-Christian). This is in part, I think, due to another Western cultural assumption that society moves from animism and polytheism to monotheism and then with the introduction of technology, to secular atheism. Not everyone believes this, but I think it’s an assumption we see a lot in SF, and like all assumptions, we chose it and other cultures have chosen different ones.

So how do you take step away from Category 1 estrangement (taking a position on an existing binary) and step into Category 2 (creating another option)? I think a good way to do this is to take an existing binary and ask yourself what exists outside of it. Instead of taking a binary like White vs. Black, why not have some other colors too? Why not have a cultural assumption that through science, one gains a better comprehension of the various Gods that exist in the universe? Why not have a culture where there are four natural genders that people pass through as they age, in varying order depending on other cultural factors? In my opinion, both Category 1 and Category 2 estrangement can be used to create great speculative fiction. However, it’s easier to work within what you already know. Like a fish who has lived its entire life at the bottom of the ocean, the concept of running is not obvious. It’s weird and wonderful and estranging in the best way. It’s something our readers are looking for when you take them to strange lands in their minds.

Next question: How do you step out of your own assumptions? Well, you can go live in or at least travel to a different country for a while. I recommend it, but it involves you uprooting your life and it isn’t so cheap. Another thing you can do is meet and talk to people who are from other countries. Learn a new language and make some new friends. (believe me, as someone who has lived and traveled abroad, the help and insight you can provide will be invaluable to their lives). You can also read books by people from other countries and cultures. Autobiographies and realist fiction is great from other cultures is great. What assumptions are common to other cultures, and how are they different from yours both within your own cultural binaries and outside of them? Work to get your mind blown. It’s uncomfortable, unnatural and downright weird. Isn’t that the point?

“Nobody poops in fiction” and other silly complaints

Let’s talk about some of your basic biological functions. They’re often not pretty or pleasant, but it’s kind of an accepted fact of life that we all have them. Like breathing, I just assume they happen, and so I’m perplexed when I encounter comments like, “People in fiction never have to go to the bathroom!” There’s even a “Nobody Poops” TV Tropes entry for it.

My response to that sort of complaint is usually a Scooby-Doo style “Ruurghh?” Are some people really so literal-minded that they need to be shown characters peeing for the sole purpose of establishing that they do indeed pee? Pictures or didn’t happen?

Of course people in fiction go to the bathroom (well, there are always exceptions to be made in fantasy and SF scenarios). But unless there’s something significant about it, I just assume the characters take care of their business off stage. Is a bowel movement going to tell me something interesting or revealing about a character or the setting? Is it going to advance the plot in some way? No? Then I don’t need to hear about it. Get on with the story.

Now, there are times when depicting things like urination and defecation actually do serve the story. The first example I thought of is Margo Lanagan’s “A Thousand Flowers” from the anthology Zombies vs. Unicorns. The story opens thusly:

I walked away from the fire, in among the trees. I was looking for somewhere to relieve myself of all the ale I’d drunk, and I had told myself—goodness knows why—in my drunkenness that I must piss where there were no flowers.

We then get several paragraphs of the poor sot trying to find a flowerless patch of earth before he’s finally able to relieve himself. Why does this work for me? Partly because it’s funny, but mostly because it tells me a lot about the character and what he values. No matter how drunk he is, no matter how badly he needs to pee, he respects this beautiful part of nature so much that he will go ridiculously out of his way not to sully it. Also, his search for an appropriate spot to pee also advances the plot as it leads to him stumbling upon an unconscious girl who appears to have been assaulted—a crime he is then falsely accused of when a bunch of soldiers show up.

Or, for an example from a different media, one of my favorite scenes in Battlestar Galactica is the conversation Baltar and Gaeta have in the bathroom in the episode “Six Degrees of Separation.” Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a video clip of the scene, but here’s a picture that sadly cannot convey just how awesome the foot acting in this scene is:

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Baltar: “So how’s it going over there?”
Gaeta: “Uh…”
Baltar: “In the lab, that is. I’m talking about the photograph.”

In addition to being hilarious, their conversation is relevant to the plot, and it’s a great character moment—Baltar is so desperate for information about the photograph Gaeta is enhancing (a photo that could condemn or absolve Baltar of a crime) that he follows him into the bathroom, where the poor guy becomes a captive and highly uncomfortable audience. And Gaeta is so determined to get out of this awkward conversation that he races from the bathroom as soon as he’s able, leading to Baltar’s hilarious, “Wait, you didn’t wash your hands!”

So yes, if it serves the story, I’m all for portrayals of characters answering the call of nature. But if someone actually needs to see characters peeing and pooping in order to accept that those characters do in fact have such bodily needs, I have to question their priorities as a reader. Really, if you just like depictions of people vacating their bowels and bladders, I’m sure there’s a place on the internet that can hook you up.

Due Process, or How Do You Write?

Naima and I were having a conversation the other day while painting pottery at a local studio (so much fun, and I totally recommend it as a way to recharge your creative batteries!) about art. You see, Naima trained as an artist, and has recently started honing her abilities again. I used to draw until I quit in high school, believing I wasn’t good enough, so why bother?. But I recently realized how much I miss art and decided to start taking drawing classes, because I really wanted to be able to do it well. Not for anyone else, just for me.

So Naima observed me at work, first painting my plate and then sketching a still life. She remarked that she thinks artists (and this includes writers) fit into one of two categories. Either they’re messy artists, who let loose with their charcoal or words or ideas at the beginning and have to go back and prune/erase mercilessly in revisions, or they’re clean artists. Clean artists are meticulous, the ones who have to do things just so and get a section right before they can move onto the next one. Naima falls into the first, and I fall into the second.

But both have their advantages and disadvantages. With being messy, there’s more freedom for entire volumes of incredible ideas to tumble into being—but a lot more to whip into shape later. With being clean, there’s more order and planning involved, but less opportunity for wild brainstorming and amazing schemes to fall into your lap. Either way, with hard work, you’ll get to where you’re going. In the end, Naima and I both finished our plates, even if mine took longer. (And I still need to go back and add a little detail. Meticulously, of course.)

The same goes for our writing. Naima can conjure the arc of an entire doorstopper trilogy out of one scene, while I really have to go bit by bit (“the three feet in the headlights the whole way” method). Which way is better? Neither. It’s what works for us as individuals. I’ve noticed there’s often a tendency for people to figure out what works for them and then try to say it’s the one correct way to do things. Considering how different we are as people and how varied our life experiences, I think there are as many ways to do things as there are humans on the planet. Not to mention process can change through time. My first novel started life as a NaNoWriMo draft, and then I rewrote it five more times. With my second novel, I’m doing my best to get each chapter as good as I can before moving on.

Maybe you’re a writer who can churn out ten thousand words in one sitting and have them be amazing. Maybe you need five years and a room of your own to produce an elegant manuscript. Maybe you need to write seven drafts before you’re even ready to show your work to anyone else. But your process is yours.

It took me a long, long time to accept that. I would compare myself to other writers and get so frustrated that glorious, profound literature—with magic, of course—wasn’t just pouring forth effortlessly from my fingers. Or that I couldn’t imagine the entire final version of the story in one go, only tiny slivers that often turn out not to be right, anyway. And it’s not like I don’t get envious sometimes of other people’s processes. But I can’t change my brain, so instead, I think about what I can do. Write a little at a time, maybe a thousand words, maybe two, and polish along the way as I discover what my story really is.

Anyway, the important thing is to get to know your brain and how it functions for you. Clean, messy, fast, slow . . . your brain is the only one that can make your particular art, and that’s the point.

So how would you classify your process, or are you still figuring it out?