It Sucks- So Don’t Give Up!

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At a writer’s group meeting, a fellow member was discussing his work from several years back, lamenting how it all sucked.

I told him, “GOOD!”

He was confused.  How is that possibly good?

Two reasons: he’d improved his writing over time, and he’d recognized as much.

Do you ever cringe, looking at stuff you worked on years earlier?  Some of my writing from high school and college, ugh- the prose is so purple, it craps violets.  In college, I got down on myself for not having finished anything I could try publishing.  Thank goodness I hadn’t!  Even now, with a few publication credits to speak of, I’m  pushing limits and working on weak points.

When will it suck?

Any time you’re on the path to becoming better at something.  Sucking just means there’s room for improvement, and there will always be room for improvement because none of us are perfect.

There’s no shame in it.  The important thing is to keep practicing and taking good criticism into account.  Your efforts will suck less over time.

Notice I frame it in terms of it/they.  IT (the work) sucks.  YOU don’t suck- EVER- unless you stop trying.

Whether you can devote a sufficient amount of effort to something isn’t always in your control, but there’s a lot you can do to make room for practice.  To get really good at one thing, you may have to put several other things aside.  If you can’t, you may have to accept remaining a dabbler in that particular realm.

This new [painting/drawing/etc.] sucks!

First tries are supposed to suck!  Even a pro needs several tries at making a new stitch, writing a new scene, or rehearsing a new song to get it right.  There’s a level of talent you hone over time, but each individual project has its own path from suckage to greatness too.

That path can be full of obstacles, soaring highs (“OMG this is awesome I rule!”), and crushing lows (“I can’t string a sentence together today- I’m the worst!”).  It’s tempting to give up during the lows, but those who persist are the ones who go on to become talented.

So, suck away.  Don’t feel bad about it.  And when you’re feeling your suckiest?  Suck some more.

Today sucks!

My bike was stolen from my garage (?!) this weekend.  If this blog post sucks, that’s why.  I’m numb and cynical and have no words in me right now.  If I had my druthers, I’d be moping under some blankets.

It’s OK to feel bad and take time to process a hurtful event, but how long can you let it go on?  How much more time and happiness will I let that thief steal?

Getting back into routine is the fastest way out of this slump- so, I’m blogging, and drafting.  It all sucks, but it’s nothing I can’t fix later.  I’m having trouble finding the quote, but there was a professional baseball player who once said something along the lines of, “Being a professional means doing what you love when you don’t want to.”

Don’t give up!  Forge ahead.

Here are some favorite examples of fictional characters rebounding from those “I suck” lows.  First, the episode “I Am The Night” from Batman: The Animated Series.  I can’t find the full episode anywhere, but here are some important clips:

Unfortunately, this video cuts short of the best part: Dick Grayson/Robin telling Batman, “You taught me everything I know about crime fighting, Bruce, but the most important lesson was to never! Give! Up!”  Batman snaps out of his funk in time to save Commissioner Gordon’s life.

Here’s a lighter example from one of my favorite movies ever, Tommy Boy.  “Forging ahead” after dozens of failures allows Tommy to make his first “sale.”

OK- one more, ‘cause I could use the laugh.  Watch how The Tick bounces back after getting kicked out of his apartment for wrecking Arthur’s credit score.  (But crime chemicals, you guys!)

That’s all for now, kids!  READ A BOOK!

How do you forge past low points and beginner suckage?  Feel free to leave me a note in the comments!

My Transition From Fanfic to Original Fiction

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To me, writing fanfiction (i.e. stories set in pre-established fictional universes, like Star Trek for instance) is akin to filling holes in a mostly assembled jigsaw puzzle.  You can have a lot of fun, and make something beautiful that lots of people will appreciate, without much effort.

In contrast, original fiction requires chopping down a tree, running planks through the wood chipper, creating pulp, turning the pulp into cardboard, drawing a beautiful illustration on the cardboard, scoring the cardboard into little pieces, smashing the puzzle up- then reassembling those pieces in an interesting way before a live studio audience.

In other words, a bit more work.

No wonder few people who write fanfic ever transition to original fiction.  How did I do it?

Short answer:

20 years, dozens of failures, boundless perseverance  :)

Long answer:

I started writing fanfiction (i.e. stories set in other people’s fictional universes) around 11 or 12 years of age.  Like everyone else’s first efforts, they’re embarrassing.  Even more embarrassing are some of the universes I wrote in- but you don’t need to know about that.

I did everything you’re not supposed to do, the Mary Sue self-insert most glaringly.  I thought I was being stunningly original, only for the Internet to come along and show me lots of people do this, and it’s insufferable to everyone but the author.  Oops.

The important thing is, I didn’t keep churning out Mary Sues.  I started writing more thoughtful stuff with my favorite characters at the forefront, exploring their natures or plugging holes in canon (i.e. established places and concepts in the universe).  With the universe pre-built for me, and an audience already familiar with it, I had the great advantage of skipping introductory details and digging right into the story.  I became concerned with, and good at, staying true to the universe and its characters.  That didn’t mean I didn’t put out the occasional farce or satire, though.  I say you’re not a fan of anything unless you can laugh at it.

In addition to fanfic, I did tons of role-playing in the same universes, both chat room and forum-based.  Sometimes I played established characters- I was especially fond of Wilykat and Wilykit from ThunderCats- but usually I created my own.  Mary Sue was nowhere to be found- these characters weren’t perfect superpeople who garnered the loving adoration of all they met.  They received more distinction, scars, and redemption as I got older.  I churned everything I learned about character portrayal and development (like these lessons on description) back into writing.

(In one of my Star Trek RPGs, I “met” one of my fellow players by dressing him down for insubordinate behavior.  Two years later, the same player proposed marriage IRL.  Yep- role-playing is how I met my spouse.)

Most fanfic writers I knew remained fanfic writers- bouncing to new universes, but never attempting original work.  I itched to write original stuff by the time I finished high school.  Part of it was the desire to see my name in print (try publishing your own fanfiction, and enjoy the onslaught of copyright lawyers).  However, I also wanted to break the cycle of creating beloved original characters who were tragically stuck in universes I didn’t own, and couldn’t be decoupled from them.

If I was going to pour so much love and attention into character creation, I might as well do the same with universes.  I had a healthy imagination- it wasn’t hard to come up with my own settings, aliens, and the like.

However, ideas are one thing.  Conveying them to the reader in an engaging fashion is another.  To the fanfic writer/RPGer who never had to explain what a transporter was or establish the centuries-long rift between the Vulcans and Romulans, it seemed lengthy explanations were the only way to get my audience up to speed.  That bogged down and killed many of my early attempts.  I’ve since learned the value of just telling the story, and letting the universe unfold on the side.

There’s another balance to be struck, though, especially for a sci-fi/fantasy writer: throwing out too much unfamiliar jargon or too many funny words at once is annoying and disengaging.  I had a big problem at first with creating long, ridiculous names littered with dashes and apostrophes.  Now, all my characters and places get short names, nicknames, and/or names that are familiar to the audience in some way (ex. in English, rather than Look-How-Smart-I-Am-Made-Up-Ese).

My biggest problem, though, was lack of follow-through.  Stories that fizzled out in 80 pages or fewer crowd my hard drive.  I’d get excited about a cool idea or premise, but rarely flesh out a story past “Things happen… the end!”  Once the initial excitement died, I got bored and gave up.

Part of the solution was to make myself write shorter stuff: cut down those novel-length dreams to 6,000 words or so, and actually grind them out.  The other part was to develop a vague idea of the plot, start to finish, before letting myself get started.

Even now, I’m not a strong outliner.  This is because 50-90% of my cool ideas show up while I’m drafting.  Let’s say I’m writing a scene where a character must ford a river.  My intention is to get him to the other side- but, as I’m drafting that, I’m struck with a vision of a sky-serpent swooping down and carrying him off.

If I was a strong outliner, I couldn’t allow things like that to happen.  He has to get across the river, or the rest of this outline is junk!  Of course, if I allow the change to occur, I must RETHINK EVERYTHING, and possibly go back and rewrite much of what was already written in order to match the new stuff…

…but that’s what I do, most of the time.  Blood’s Force has undergone six major revisions over five years, not to mention dozens of lesser tweaks to characters and plot elements.  When you compare Draft 6 to Draft 1, though- see how much richer and nuanced the world is, how many more dimensions each character has, and how much more stuff happens beyond people chatting in rooms- the effort speaks for itself.

It took a long time, but I’ve worked up to a level of discipline where, if I start upon an idea, I follow through.  Blood’s Force was the first novel-length story I’ve ever carried to completion, despite many points when I asked myself whether it wouldn’t be better to take it out back with a shotgun.  It’s been quite the learning experience.  I hope on future endeavors, I reach Draft 6 quality faster!

Are there any other transitioners out there?  What did you find easy/hard about the experience?  Drop me a line and let me know!

Talk Through The Block, And Other Tips For Getting Your Brain Unstuck

DuckA giant rubber duck swam through my hometown in 2013.  Photo by Remy Porter.

My past jobs involved a lot of tech support- not just the stereotypical “Is your machine plugged in?” fare, but also talking with developers about their code, how they could fine-tune performance and make the best use of the APIs I supported.

One of my all-time favorite users (for real- no sarcasm) called me up frequently concerning an especially painful application that fell under my purview.  She, herself, was no slouch at this app.  Every once in a while, though, she was stumped about where to find a menu option, or how to hone an advanced function to suit her needs.

She was one of my favorites because she’d explain her issue… then 9 times out of 10, come up with a her own resolution as she was talking with me.  I wouldn’t have to do anything but listen, and we both hung up happy.

This is a classic example of rubber duck debugging.  Don’t ask me how it works, but oftentimes just explaining the problem you’re having out loud- even to an inanimate object, or someone who doesn’t understand the technical details- organizes the data differently in your brain, leading you around the block.  It’s good for more than programming and software.  You can talk yourself into answering all kinds of questions- how to handle a difficult coworker, where to take the plot of a story, how to solve a math problem.

Of course, it’s also great if the rubber duck does understand whatever you’re working on.  I help my spouse with programming by throwing out intelligent (I hope) troubleshooting suggestions and questions about what might be causing a particular bug.  He, in turn, uses his fiction and improv skills to get me past dreaded bouts of writer’s block.

What if you’ve poured your heart out, and you’re still stuck?  Here are some other thoughts on getting beyond blocks:

Take a break. 

Bashing your head against the same wall for hours won’t help.  Get up and go do something else without stewing on the problem at all.  Work on a different part of the program, throw on a video game, or take a quick walk through the neighborhood.  The length of your break varies based on whether you’re staring at a deadline or other obligations, but even just a few minutes’ distraction can get your brain off of old thought patterns and approaches that aren’t working.

Don’t fall into despair.

For some people, getting stuck leads to nasty feelings of frustration and inadequacy.  Fortunately, it’s possible to change the way you look at problems.  Rather than tragedies to be avoided, blocks can be challenges or puzzles- temporary obstacles that don’t reflect upon your ability.  If you’re driving and see a pothole up ahead, do you turn around and beat yourself up for being a bad driver?  Hopefully not- instead, you take action to avoid the pothole safely (or, if you live in Pittsburgh, you plow on because any evasive maneuver will land you in an even larger sinkhole).  Remind yourself of obstacles you’ve tackled in the past.  You’ll get through this one, too.

Change your scenery.

When you return to the issue, switch up as much as you can in your working environment.  Take your laptop to another room (or outside), try using a notebook, listen to different music, type in a different font…  The idea is to trick your brain into thinking this is a novel situation, which may in turn tease out some novel thinking.

Take time out to brainstorm.

Sometimes you need to step back and list possibilities.  For instance: what are all the pieces of information you need from the user to duplicate their issue?  What are some different objects that could be in the room where your scene is taking place?   I’ve written about some brainstorming techniques before that may be of help.

Don’t give up.

You may not have a choice to quit- if you’re at work, you’d better write that code or resolve that issue- but if your project is optional, the temptation to quit climbs awfully high during these low points.  Don’t give in.  Once you get around this block, you’ll be that much more resilient, creative, and confident for it- and your next block will be that much easier to conquer.

What advice do you have for getting past mental blocks?  Drop me a line in the comments!

The First Things You Learn After Quitting Your Full-Time Job

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Wow!  I don’t have to go to work again- ever!  This day can be anything I want!

An amazing feeling- but also a worrying one.

I don’t want to waste it.  What should I do?  I’d better decide fast- I’m wasting time RIGHT NOW. 

The question gnaws at me.  Before I know it, I’ve wasted hours with unnecessary guilt and frustration.

I should go write, right?  Duh!  That novel won’t finish itself.  But there are a hundred other things I’m responsible for.  When do I fit that stuff in?  When do I take time to just loaf around, because gosh darn it I’ve earned it?  A balance must be sought.

Soon after leaving my job, I realized…

You’ll slip into Permanent Weekend Mode if you’re not careful.

Make a leisurely breakfast, throw on Seinfeld with my coffee, relax on the couch…  Shit, it’s 11:30!  Wasn’t I supposed to be doing stuff?

No alarm blares you out of bed.  There’s no dress-suit to put on or bus to catch.  Everything around you screams “weekend,” so you fall into your weekend routine- which, let’s face it, is probably not your most productive behavior.  This is fine for the first few days or weeks.  If you’re burned out, you can use the break.  After that, though…

You must work to define your new “normal.”

This is a work in progress.  I’m not racing to make Monday through Friday all the same again, but some structure and discipline are essential for doing more than goofing off.  I have “work” goals (my writing projects), “hobby” goals (non-writing stuff I like to do), and the maintenance activities that keep me and my household hale and happy.  What should I do when?  Whether I’m truly carpe-ing the diem is up to me to decide- but I won’t know what works best until I try different things.

I’m especially excited about experimenting with my sleep schedule.  I’d like to set a consistent wake up and bedtime (I’m bad about going to bed at a consistent time each night).

If you don’t already have a reliable to-do tracking system, you need one.

Or things won’t get done.  Even a self-motivated person forgets when a certain appointment is or what he needed from the store.

I’ve used calendars and day planners in the past to good effect.  I’m trying out OneNote now, which is what I used at work to keep track of what tasks were due when.  The Mac version isn’t quite as polished as the Windows version, but I’m thrilled there’s a Mac version at all.  Plus, it’s a free download from the App Store!

Assign tasks to specific days.  Throw “Paint the bedroom” on a to-do list, and it’ll never budge.  “Paint the bedroom 6/14” – now you’re making a commitment you’re more likely to follow through with.

Goals keep you moving forward.

Be your own dream boss: someone who defines challenging tasks, gives leeway on how and when those tasks are completed, and re-prioritizes as needed without freaking out or throwing blame around.

I still have the one-chapter-a-week editing goal, but now I find that something even more granular is needed so I don’t spend my non-writing hours worrying I’m not progressing fast enough.  A daily goal like “finish rewriting this scene” helps.  Of course, longer-term goals are great too.  I want to be done with editing my novel by July/August so I can spend August drafting a new story.

You still won’t have time until you make time!

Languages, drawing, crochet, piano… how is it I freed up 40 hours per week and still can’t fit these in?

In my case, I just haven’t yet made the same commitment to them as with writing.  I’m trying small goals with these, one hobby at a time.  Once I get German and Spanish back into my life on a daily basis, I’ll try the same with drawing.

Bad days still happen.

Leaving full-time work behind may alleviate a great deal of anxiety, but it’s never one’s sole source of problems.  Unfortunate situations occur everywhere.  Health issues still crop up and take out a perfectly good day.  I really, really must learn not to beat myself up over things outside my control.

Budgeting, saving, and cost-cutting are more important than ever.

Whoops!  Guess which household is no longer earning a solid guaranteed income?  From here on out, we may be earning anywhere from hundreds to thousands per month, which makes budgeting and taxes so much more fun!

Fortunately, my spouse and I had excellent saving and investing habits for years before we made plans to exit the rat race.  In the past year or so, we’ve been hammering away at expenses.  After all, the less we spend, the less we need to make.  We’re constantly looking for expenses we can cut out entirely, and ways to save on essentials.  For more info on the full “financial badassity” spectrum, I recommend the Mr. Money Mustache blog.

Also, good records of income and expenses will help when it comes time to file income taxes.  In the US, you must file them quarterly once your income exceeds a certain threshold.  As a writer, this is not something I have to worry about for a while- I joke that if I ever make enough to cover the monthly Internet bill, I’ll be thrilled- but I’ll have my receipts in order if/when the time comes.

Work hard, but don’t forget your new flexibility.

Make time to visit the museum in the middle of the day, when no one’s around.  Go for walks in the neighborhood, and let yourself walk half as fast as everyone else, who all had to be somewhere five minutes ago.  Pet your cat for twenty minutes, guilt-free.  Take frequent breaks during your designated work times.  My spouse and I chat about our works in progress, and trade helpful suggestions.

Leaving full-time work is a risk, but these are the moments that make it most worthwhile!

Have any advice?  Anything else you’re curious about?  Drop me a line and let me know!

In Perpetuity: Free Download

ipcover_cropAstronaut drawing by Mark Bowytz – Cover design by Ellis Morning

My short story In Perpetuity– originally published in the May 2014 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact– is now available for free!  Choose your format below:

In Perpetuity represents several thrilling firsts: my first attempt at hard science-fiction, my first published short story, and my first serious effort at compiling ebooks.  (And I thought website/browser compatibility was tricky!)

The story began as one of many unfinished projects from my college days.  In 7 years, its skeleton migrated across 2 state lines, 8 domiciles, and 3 PCs.  One day, I rediscovered it and gave it a skim.  You know what?  This one has promise.  I should really complete it.

I took the finished draft to the wonderful Pittsburgh Writers’ Group for feedback.  One of the comments: “Excellent. Get it published.”  So I did.

Shopping a short story to a publisher requires patience and professionalism, but the effort pays in more ways than one.  I could actually walk into a bookstore and find my work “in the wild,” which for me was more exciting than the paycheck (but I’m totally not dissing the paycheck here).


I hope to do more short stories in the same universe as In Perpetuity, but at the moment, my work on Sword and Starship takes precedence.  I’m about 2/3 of the way through my first editing pass with Blood’s Force, and I’m learning a lot about the reality of editing a large work as I go.  Still on track for my targeted release date.  I’ll probably have an even clearer idea by the end of September.

Hope you enjoy the story!  If you have any questions or feedback, please leave a comment or email me.  I’d love to hear from you!