Ink-Stained Scribe

Changing the Trigger

Lee Min-ho is working diligently.

This week, I did a guest post on the Magical Words blog where I talked about different ways to get Hands On Keyboard -- Words On Page (HOKWOP). One of the tips/techniques I mentioned was establishing a trigger.

This is not trigger in the sense of topics, images, or events that trigger a resurgence of emotions from a traumatic experience. This is trigger in the sense that productivity gurus use it. Here's an excerpt from that blog post, Eight Ways to HOKWOP.

A trigger, in the lingo of productivity gurus, is an action you take that impels you to work. Some writers sharpen pencils, others open a blank page, others do yoga. Part of establishing a habit is establishing a trigger for that habit. 
At the moment, when I sit down at my computer to write, my habit is to click on Google Chrome. This begins a series of events that leads to a low-productivity morning, until guilt eventually drags me away from the internet and shoves me lead-footed onto the page. I’m currently in the process of breaking that habit and establishing a routine that includes a new trigger, which will get me writing. 
First, I have to break the old habit of surfing the net in the mornings. My trigger for that is the automatic desire to open Google Chrome when I open my computer. It’s muscle memory at this point–I hardly notice I’m doing it until it’s done. While I’m breaking this habit, I’m trying to establish a new one, which is opening the document for my work-in-progress. 
To remind myself of that trigger, I’ve established a schedule where I wake up, do morning pages, go for a walk, eat breakfast, do some yoga, and sit down to write. I recognize that everyone doesn’t have the luxury of such an open morning. I’m getting up at 6:30 to do this, and I start writing at 9:00 – I have alarms set for each. When I was in college, or working, my trigger was often sitting down at a coffee shop, taking a sip, taking a deep breath, and opening my notebook. 
Figure out the triggers for your negative habits, then find or establish a positive trigger.

So. I'm working on this. As I mentioned above, I've got a schedule. Have I been keeping to that schedule? Uhhh, no. Not really. But I'm trying to. I've always had trouble falling asleep, so I'm trying to make myself work out in the evenings to tire me out. I'm forcing myself to work out by restricting my podcast-listening time to workouts-only. No workout? No podcast.

I'm also not doing yoga in the mornings yet, because I haven't been waking up early enough to do my morning pages before my walk, so I do them after. It's currently 10:05 and I'm planning to go to bed as soon as I finish this post. I've set my alarm, which is across the room, for 6:30. Hopefully, I will get up out of bed and not just go right back to sleep, as is my wont.

I'm still sitting down at 9:00 to work. Problem is, it's also release week for my book, so I'm wanting to check my stats. Hnng. So I've made an exception. Also, I've been finishing up my most recent audiobook, HAVEN: A STRANGER MAGIC, by D.C. Akers. ACX is giving me hell with the uploading, so I'm still spending a good amount of time getting all that done.

Which means I'm still not on the schedule I'd hoped to be on at this time. Now, honestly, all of the above are excuses, and it's not like I have any issue writing when I sit down to write. It's that I have other things that are more URGENT, if less IMPORTANT.

...and that has just sparked a memory.

Image from wikipedia article
A few months ago, Skrybbi was telling me about a time-management system she learned about at a seminar. I just looked it up and discovered it's the late Stephen Covey's four-quadrant matrix for importance and urgency, from his book First Thing's First (which I must now try not to impulse-buy).

Quadrant 1: Things that are both important and urgent. In other words, GRANDPA'S ON FIRE.

Quadrant 2: Things that are important, but not urgent. No one will die if I don't finish Song of the Heretic by mid-December, but it's important to me (and my career) that I keep producing new writing.

Quadrant 3: It's urgent, but not important. Most emails and text messages and chats on Facebook.

Quadrant 4: It's neither urgent nor important. Tumblr, Pinterest, TV shows, etc. Of course, some of these things can be considered important in terms of providing a dialog (I am an English major, after all. I see significance in communication through art.)

Covey postulates that we most often ignore Quadrant 2, but in order to lead more productive and fulfilling lives, we have to do more of it. That's sort of why I quit my job in March. No time for Quadrant 2.

So Here's What I've Been Doing (wrong)

Most of the stuff I've been up to in the past few days is in Quadrant 1, 3, or 4. Not because I've necessarily been ignoring Quadrant 2--just the opposite, I'm scheduling and planning for it and writing this blog post right now. The problem is, I've overestimated my abilities with audio editing and got to the point where IT'S ALL ON FIRE. ALL OF IT. I MUST FINISH ALL THE THINGS.

Luckily, I've enlisted help to get it under control and am looking forward to the slave-driver of guilt not keeping me constantly scuttling, head-bowed, to garage band or screaming at the server that doesn't want me to upload files.

I will probably end up drawing my own version of this quadrant and hanging it next to my desk as a reminder to ask myself what quadrant a particular topic falls into.

Reading and writing blog-posts is something that I actually consider to be part of my vocation. Part of being a writer, especially a writer with independently-published work, is staying in contact with my audience (I still can't quite make the word "fans" work in my brain. It feels too pretentious). That's part of why I got back to it, and now I'm glad I did--it's reminded me of something I think will be helpful in changing my trigger.

SO. Tomorrow morning, I pledge to you: I will get up at 6:30 for my morning pages. I will go on my walk with mom at 7:00. I will be in my chair with the laptop open and scrivener opened to Song of the Heretic. At 9:00, I will write.

I may check my sales on my phone during my walk, but other than that, I will not be looking at them until I've written at least 1000 words.

Do you have a trigger for writing? Do you have a negative trigger? Do you have a plan to break it? How? Have you broken bad habits and established good ones? How did you do it?

The Ministry Initiative Kickstarter!

You know how I said my short story, The Incident of the Clockwork Mikoshi, was going to be included in an anthology provided the kickstarted can be funded?


The Ministry Initiative - A Steampunk RPG and Anthology Kickstarter

I won't beg or plead, because I think the video speaks for itself. Give it a watch, and even if you can't support it, I hope you'll spread the word! It's already 6% funded in just a few hours!

Doesn't it look COOL! I gotta say, I am in great company with that anthology. I almost can't believe it!

Just imagine me staring at you like this.
You want to back my kickstarter now.
Oh yeah.

On Art, Earthquakes, and Quitting My Job

Image by martinluff of flickr.
I remember my first earthquake. It was Summer of 2007, about two months after I moved to Japan. It was the middle of the night and I was asleep on my futon, which was directly on the floor beneath my overhead light. I've suffered from insomnia since high school and taken various sleep medications and the feeling was not unlike the effects of Ambien--the floor beneath me rocked like a boat. I woke up, not sure quite what was going on. I had expected something a little more like a malt-mixer or a drive over rocky terrain, so my brain didn't say EARTHQUAKE.

Then I noticed the cord on my overhead light swinging. Theory of relativity and all that, I realized it wasn't me but the earth moving. Literally.

Coming to terms with the fact that I needed to quit a stable job was similar.

What happened.

February 2013. I press the "release call" button on my phone and pull off my headset, flinging it to the desk in front of my double monitors. It's childish to throw inanimate objects, but there's no room left for shame in my chest. I stare at it like physical evidence of my inability to cope with the real world and feel the fire in my chest tear up my throat and into my eyes.

I've always been the kind of person for whom the world would end in flames, but right now the heat of my frustration and resentment isn't so much lighting things on fire as it is spilling down my face.

That triggers the shame. I hate crying. I hate being the person whose frustration and anger gets dismissed as a tantrum because any emotion that's strong enough sets off the water works. I used to get teary just asking for an extension on a homework assignment. Fear of misinterpretation or dismissal has made me ashamed of my biology.

I sweep the tears off my cheek and watch the timer for my personal time tick up as I try to breathe, to calm down. The man I'd been speaking to on the phone was angry at the organization, not at me. I knew that, and I'm usually good at the "soothing, measured voice" that calms down even the most frustrated customers. It's about the only useful thing I can do here. Vocal zen. But not today.

My patience threshold is pretty high. It might take little more than mild worry or frustration to make me cry, but it takes a lot to really piss me off. A lot of little things building up and building up, until the threshold is done and my patience level is Beyond Salvation.

My patience is like a firework.
Long fuse, but once it explodes,
it's pretty much gone.
Unlike quick-fire tempers, once I lose patience, it's pretty much gone.

I've been pissed since I opened my email that morning. Just a two sentence email letting me know my productivity was below 100% yesterday because I couldn't keep myself in the proper task codes. I know the task codes are my weakness. Management knows it's my weakness.

They also know, because I have explained to them, that I am attention deficit, and while I have learned to handle the interruptions to my work caused by phone calls, expecting me to remember nine different auxiliary codes, and remember to come out of them at the appropriate times, is an exercise in futility. It's not that I can't do the work. It's not that I couldn't learn to do the work very well given proper training and the ability to ask questions (neither of which I have); I've been told I'm a good employee and rated well in my quarterly and yearly evaluations.

But these codes are killing me.

And then to have an hour-long phone call with a man who refuses to stop talking or believe anything I try to tell him, who tells me my entire organization is incompetent (fact), and that I must be a moron for not knowing what he's asking.

"I apologize, sir," I finally said. "I was an English major in university. I've never studied business or accounting. I don't know the difference between an ethics question and a peer review question. If you would be able to determine which of these areas your question is likely to fall under, I'd be happy to connect you with the appropriate area."

"Why doesn't your company hire people who can answer these questions? I just don't understand."

"There are people who can answer these questions. Unfortunately, I'm not one of them. I would be happy to give you the numbers for both hotlines so you can contact them directly, or connect your with them now."

"It's just a simple question!"

"I understand that, sir-"

"Really? Do you understand anything? Do you speak English."

Obviously. What I don't understand is why I'm still doing this.

I sweep more tears from my face and pick up my coffee. I drink until the tightness in my throat loosens and glance at the clock. Lunch is in ten minutes. I'm already seven minutes into my ten minutes of personal time.

I pull up a document and stare at it, trying to remember where I was and what I was doing an hour ago, before the call. My face feels hot, and I'm trying to sniff quietly so my coworkers won't know I've been reduced to tears by someone on the phone. Again.

I can't seem to hold anything in these days. My tears seem at all times close to the surface.

It's at times like this I wonder what would happen if I just... walked out. Got in my car. Drove home. It's not like anyone would stop me. Hell, any of the people here whose opinion I care about wouldn't even blame me.

But why can't I do this? Why am I the only one who's constantly reduced to tears? Am I so spoiled that I can't work in unfavorable conditions?

God, I haven't even written anything new in two months. I've been too tired. That never used to matter. Maybe I don't want it enough. Maybe I've lost whatever it was I once had.

The thought creeps into my brain despite resistance: what if I give up writing? If I let go of my ambition, maybe I could be content with a dead end, frustrating job. Maybe I'd have time to sleep and relax and meet people. Maybe I'd have time for romance. Maybe I wouldn't feel so lonely.

But...give up writing.

Give up writing.

A surge of emotion chokes me as I imagine life without writing. In my mind's eye, my identity crumbles and the future is a big black tunnel with no light at the end. Nothing to reach for.

Maybe I'd have more time if I gave up writing, but what would I be? So much of myself has been dedicated to that dream for so long that I don't know who I'd be without it.

Having to explain to my writing club that I couldn't do it. High school reunions, telling people I wasn't published and wasn't trying to be because I couldn't hack real life. Hearing my closest friends call me "Scribe", but knowing I wasn't Scribe anymore.

If I gave up writing, I'd never be able to respect myself.

I can change my job. I can change my hair. I can change the country I live in or the name I go by or the clothes I put on. I can start waking up early and keeping my room clean and making schedules.

But the one thing I can't change is writing. If I change that, I will disappear. I will fade. There will be nothing left of my Self or my self respect.

I won't believe in anything anymore.

That's when the earth started shaking.

What happened next.

By February 2013, I had two finished two novels, one of which did much better than I expected with agent interest, and an award-finalist podcast on writing genre fiction. I'd finally begun speaking at conventions. I had made amazing friends who were successful in my chosen fields and to whom I feel connected. I was paying all my bills and beginning to make headway on my credit card debt.

I was completely, utterly depressed.

I was exhausted, trying to keep myself afloat and maintain enough energy to shove my writing career into being. As we all know, when you try to multitask you accomplish no task at the best of your ability.

Five years out of college and I wasn't in Japan anymore, I wasn't published, and I was in a 9-6 job I hated. It's like the ultimate first-world problem, right?

 "I'm in a job with benefits, but it's stifling me creatively!"

Boo-effing-hoo. I wasn't homeless, I wasn't working minimum wage, I had clean water to drink, and I had friends and family that loved me.

Am I so spoiled and lazy that I can't be satisfied with that?

Graphic by J. Finkelstein on Wikimedia
Let me introduce you to my little friend: Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. I first learned about this from Adryn, who was an abnormal psych major in Uni and whipped this mother out on the podcast.

It's excellent for character and society-building, but I never thought to use it for its actual purpose this blog post. (An typical example of my prioritization skills)

Here's something fun: growing up a white middle class American[1] means you're pretty much free to pursue Esteem and Self-actualization from birth (well, at least, once you're out of middle school and no longer worrying about Safety and Love/Belonging. Am I projecting?)

Then, if you're extra lucky, you head off to university where you continue to pursue Esteem and Self-actualization through education, and probably think once or twice about how this may translate into future safety through employment. Or you're all like:

Pshh. Employment. I'm going to study English even though I don't want to teach, because I'm going to be published by the time I'm 25!

(Shut up.)

Yup. That's me. I graduated and fluttered off to an entry-level teaching job in Japan, thrusting myself into the world of paying rent and bills and gas and food and having to actually do my own laundry and figuring out how clotheslines work in rainy season (oh yeah, and learning a foreign language to do it all in, because life's not hard enough in English).

I was so used to pursuing "Esteem" and "Self-actualization" that I continued devoting my time to creative pursuits and dreams, all the while living at the barest level of "Safety". Sometimes the financial ends did not meet and I spent the last couple of days scraping the bottom of my rice bag and hoping a private student wouldn't cancel a lesson.

But hey, I was young and in a foreign country, and it was okay to live irresponsibly for a while.

Three years later, when my visa was up, I came home. I dropped back into the "Safety" area as I fought the Hunger Games of job interviews and wondered whether I'd accidentally given my house elf a sock or something.

The problem was, my "irresponsible" living continued even when I came back to the states, only then I was unemployed for six months and racking up credit card debt while living on my parents' farm in the middle of rural North Carolina (where they had moved upon my graduation from high school). I hadn't grown up there and I didn't know anyone. A month later, my parents moved to Wisconsin, leaving me with only my older brother for company.

I was isolated, jobless, depressed, and I wasn't even writing all that much. Though I told myself I was going to "go all Thoreau on this situation," I failed. I tried to achieve self-actualization while meeting only the "Physiological" needs. The rope bridge between the base and top of my personal Maslow's hierarchy grew weaker and weaker as I ignored Safety, Belonging, and Esteem.

Not long after, I got a job in Raleigh--the city where I grew up--and was able to move in with my roommate. I hopped to two different positions before settling in a company that provided a livable salary and benefits, and I thought I was safe.

Except I wasn't.

I had achieved "Safety" in a monetary sense, and I had achieved love/belonging in my group of friends
and my roommate, but I was still trying to pursue my writing, still feeling like all the time and effort I'd put into getting an education and learning my craft was being wasted in a job that gradually wore down my energy, ignored my accomplishments, and made me feel like a person deserving of little to no respect.

Through all that, I was still clinging to my creative projects. I wanted my art. I wanted my writing and my podcasting and my cosplay. I was beginning to form a strong network of amazing friends in all those venues, but I had little time or energy to deepen those friendships. I let a very promising podcast fall by the wayside. I abandoned my rewrite of HELLHOUND.

I told myself I would have more energy once I found another job, but every time I opened a browser to search for a new job, the internal temper tantrum would begin.

I'm tired. I want to sleep. I don't have time for this. I'm sad. I'm lonely. I'm worthless. I can't sleep. I want to write.

It was after several abortive attempts to get a new job that I had that awful day at work. That day where I thought about walking out. That day where I thought about giving up writing.

I realized then that what I received in terms of financial stability was not worth the toll the job was taking on my psyche, my body, and my dreams. The earth shook, and I realized that it wasn't my inherent worthlessness that made me incapable of functioning in my job. It wasn't that the world itself was the problem, either. Earthquakes, as frightening as they can be, are not unnatural.

I just hadn't seen that swinging light, that indicator that things around me were not as I was used to them being, and in order to figure out how to make myself safe, I needed first to recognize that the shaking wasn't my fault.

The day I realized the world was shaking, I spent my lunch break finding templates and composing my letter of resignation. I printed it out. I sent an email to my supervisor requesting a meeting the next day.

I hadn't put it into words yet, but the realization is clear in hindsight.

The financial compensation wasn't enough to ensure safety, because safety is more than financial stability.

Safety is more than financial stability.

To understand that is one thing. I can read those words and understand what they mean and even agree with them. To feel it, though? To know it? To look at what the method of gaining that financial security has done to your self respect and realize that, if you continue, it will eventually force you to reject your identity? That is a completely different sort of understanding.

So I'm 28. In debt. Unpublished. Moving back in with my parents. Yes, a little ashamed. Yes, still feeling like a failure.

But also feeling hopeful. Because Safety is more than financial stability, it's also happiness. And I'm working on that.

I cry every time I see this.

[1] Note: being a white middle-class American is never to be taken for granted. Ever. Please don't complain about it. Really. Don't complain about being white and middle class. 'Cause guess what? In addition to avoiding all the usually-quoted trappings of being a minority, you never have to worry about whether you've been selected for something because of merit or because someone needs better-looking statistics. I watched a non-white friend get her acceptance letter to a long-shot school and, rather than rejoice, decide it was affirmative action and not her own merit that got her in. Let me tell you what, it sucks to watch someone belittle their own skill because they're convinced they've been selected to fill a quota and you, white girl, are in no position to convince her otherwise because educational facilities will always evaluate you based on skill, not what box you check.

*5-8-13 - Thanks to everyone who has sent me such kind, thoughtful emails and comments on facebook regarding this post. I'm glad it can provide some comfort to those going through similar troubles, and I can't tell you how much I appreciate the stream of support and love I have received. I may not be able to measure my success in money or accomplishments just yet, but, as a wise man once wrote (and many sang after him), "measure your life in love". Thanks.

Scribe's (Not) Going Back to School

Since my recent freedom from the old day job, I've been trying to find part-time work. This is going about as well as it did before, which is to say, it's not going that well. The economy is lousy and there's really not much out there for someone with an English BA and experience in teaching ESL.

After talking with my parents and fairly assessing the likelihood that I will go from dead-end job to dead-end job, never climbing above the poverty level, **I've decided to go back to school for a masters degree in communications, a field I have some familiarity with and--with the rise of New Media popularity--a good amount of interest in.

Of course, I'll have to get a job while I get my masters, or at least until I can satisfy all the requirements to go back full time if that's the route I decide to take. I'm still in the early stages of planning this, so I can't say much more on the subject other than: "Have GRE book. Will study."

Besides school and work, I've got several writing goals and plans this year. These are what's coming down the writing pipeline for me in 2013, though my situation is somewhat transient and these are subject to change pending the manifestation of school/work:

*My short story, The Incident of the Clockwork Mikoshi, will appear in the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences world in some exciting fashion, which I will reveal a bit later.

*I will be writing bi-monthly fantasy book reviews for Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show magazine, the first will be out April 8th!

*I'll be releasing a YA Paranormal Comedy novelette called BULL-RUSHING THE GHOST via podcast and ebook, likely some time in July.

*I plan to finish the first draft of the outlined novel, HERETIC'S RESONANCE, by the end of October.

*If I somehow manage to pull all that off, I'll either write a novella about a side-character during NaNoWriMo or I'll get to work on the third draft of HELLHOUND, which needs to be rewritten from the ground up to work. Maybe a few old scenes can be saved.

With all this excitement, there's also Pendragon Variety Podcast, which has started recording again and is making some headway with the first issue of the Literary Magazine. I'm also looking forward to auditioning for some paid voice recording work with ACX, an Audible affiliate. Now wouldn't THAT be a way to pay my way through school?

Did I mention I was a bit overcommitted? Because I'm also doing some more voice work and attending or speaking at at least four more conventions this year.

Needless to say, everything but the writing and school will have to slow down once I find a job, but for now, I'm steering my life down a path I'm excited about.

What are your plans this year?

**I have decided not to go back to school, actually, but to try to support myself with writing, voice-acting, and part-time work. Yes, I am crazy, but I have to start treating myself like a pro and do what makes me happy.

Fear of Failure

Today is one of those days where I want to get in my car and drive and drive and drive, because it might somehow put this heavy sense of dread behind me. Like, maybe fear of failure is some monster I can box up and shove into the top corner of my closet. It might growl, but I can leave it there and get in my car and go away and it won't be able to follow me.

But that isn't going to work. Fear or depression isn't something I can leave behind. It belongs to me and it knows it. Like one of those improbable pets in family movies, it will find it's way back no matter where I go. It will curl up in the back of my mind and sink its claws into my throat.

Sometimes I can kick it out, ignore it's yowling and scratching. But sometimes I open the door just to look at it, to check if it's still there, and it streaks in past my legs before I can stop it.

Some days, just getting up, getting dressed, and leaving the house is the hardest thing in the world.

I guess this happens, though. We feel afraid. We feel useless. We feel like nothing will ever come to any good. We grieve those parts of our former selves we've lost in growing up, giving up, or refusing to give up when we probably should. We swallow the lumps in our throats and pretend we're okay until we fool ourselves into believing it, until it comes true, until next time.

Does Talent Matter? How the Idea of Talent Saved and Sabotaged Me

I’m sitting in my fourth grade classroom, picking at a bit of dried glue on my desk. Across from me is Matt, a tall skater boy who belongs to the popular-kid posse but bent the Cool Rules enough to help me with long division. He's gone back to being surly now. Across the room, someone giggles.

Our desks are arranged in four-desk pods, and the giggle came from the one diagonally across from mine. Two boys crumble bits of their eraser and throw it at Jess, taking advantage of Mr. P’s turned back. Jess’s head is bowed, blonde hair falling over her glasses as she tries to ignore them.

“Pick your nose!” one of them says in a carrying whisper. He shifts his wicked glare from Jess to me, challenging my temper.

Tears drop onto the stiff, glittery face of the Siberian tiger on Jess's shirt, and I go hot with anger. I clench my teeth and glare back down at my desk. I want to yell at them, but if I do I’ll only cry, and if I cry I’ll probably get in trouble for being so easily provoked.

I’m always easily provoked. I am, as my grandfather would say, pugnacious. After a while, though, you either fight back or shut down, and I’m years from shutting down.

Mr. P finishes pulling our composition books from the file cabinet and gives the boys a look. He’s the nicest teacher I’ve ever had, but I wish he’d let me and Jess sit together. He can’t, really. The desks are alphabetical, and despite our names both starting with “Har-”, the luck of the numbers has us sitting half a classroom apart. My desk is closest to the door. I can’t wait to get out of here.

Mr. P hands out the composition notebooks, and after yesterday’s class, my face is still burning. I wish Jess hadn’t raised her hand to read her story. It had been about us watching a spaceship landing and being ecstatic when some of our favorite fictional characters stepped out. She cried “Luke Skywalker!?” and I cried out “Ben!?”

My childhood love.
She’d meant the intrepid apprentice from the American Girl series about Felicity, but there was a boy in the class named Ben—one of the popular boys—and they were all now convinced I had a crush on him. I’d rather date the apprentice, who has dark reddish hair that matches his stubborn, fiery personality. Jess knows my taste pretty well. That’s why we’re friends.

I slide my composition book toward me and open it, letting myself fall back into the story of kidnapped golden foxes and the young girl who rides off to find them and save her village. I’m glad Mr. P has us writing stories. He reads to us too, and pairs us off to read books together so we can talk about them. I flush, remembering he assigned me to read a book with Ben a few weeks ago. Ben was nice, and never said anything bad about me like the other boys did.

He wasn’t brave either, though. He laughed when they said mean things and never tried to stop them. I remember him standing there when A.J. spat in my Young Jedi Knights book, and when Josh “accidentally” hit me in the face with a basketball. Never mind. Ben isn’t nice. Ben is scared.

Instead of thinking about it, I disappear into my story, imagining the thud of hooves and the warm little crate where the golden foxes are held, deep inside a cave covered in twisting vines. I don’t come out again until Mr. P crouches next to me, his hands on my desk for balance. Mr. P is young—he has long, curly hair he wears back in a ponytail and glasses. He drives a motorcycle to school and is engaged to the art teacher.

“Lauren,” he says, already smiling. “I read your story so far and it’s really good. Have you ever thought about becoming a writer?”

I know people write books, but they’ve always been distant, mythical beings as rare and magical as pegacorns. They’re Authors. I love making up stories but I didn’t think anyone would like reading them. Mr. P said my fox story was good, though, and he’s a teacher.

I don’t look around. I don’t want to see my classmates, whether they’re looking or not. Mr. P hadn’t crouched down at any other desks. Only mine. I feel strangely triumphant all of a sudden. I’m a horse-loving bookworm and a Jedi-wannabe; I make myself an easy target because I try to be like the heroines in my favorite books and stand up for other people.

But I have talent.

Have you ever thought about becoming a writer?

“Yes.” It was almost a lie, since I never though about it before now, but I don’t want to lose hold of this new possibility blooming inside me, quietly pushing back the dread. “That’s what I want to do.”

Does Talent Matter?

I was bullied from fourth to eighth grade and books had always been a solace for me, as they are for so many. When I found out I could write them, I knew it was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

But what does talent really mean, and does it really matter? Its impact on my life has been both positive and negative, because as much as talent itself helped me to identify and be recognized for my passion, the idea of talent may have held me back.

I'd had attention for writing as a child and teen, and that talent drove me to keep impressing so I didn't lose the one thing that, amid the insults and fistfights, made me feel special. As a middle schooler, my body started reacting to the bullying for me. I dreaded the bus, the cafeteria, the classrooms, and when the stress got too bad, my body produced a fever like a rabbit from a hat. I went home. I wrote.

My youth was my selling point and, like a desperate fashion model, I was determined to cash in before my moneymaker checked out. I felt like it wouldn't be as "impressive" to publish as a bona fide adult. I didn't think I would ever be great, but I didn't just want to be good.

So I wanted to be special instead. S.E. Hinton special. Christopher Paolini special. (Except, you know, continue publishing.)

Talent isn't the end-all-be-all of "making it". After all, every one of us can think of at least five people who are famous despite being talent-less at their chosen field. There's no formula to getting published, though some combination of the following elements is usually quoted in the result:

  • Talent
  • Hard work
  • Dedication
  • Skill (gaining/improving)
  • Luck
  • Connections
  • Timing
  • Blood
  • Sweat
  • Tears
  • Coffee

At BaltiCon 2012, +Dave Robison of The Roundtable Podcast interviewed the podcasters, begging the question "Does Talent Matter?" Here's a link to that excellent episode. Few of the responses gave an outright "no"--most people were quick to point out that talent might give writers an extra boost, but needed a lot of elbow-grease to develop it into something like skill. One interesting comment, however, indicated that the perception of "talent" may very well hold writers back.

Talent!? How can talent hold you back?

Let's return to high school-aged Scribe. I went to a small, nerdy high school that had just opened, and almost everyone who went there was a geek. It was a godsend. For the first time since moving to North Carolina, I didn't get bullied. I made friends--the best friends of my life. Friends who are still with me today (shout out to the Ladies Pendragon). Finally, the shackles of depression and CONSTANT VIGILANCE were falling away. In this new, safe atmosphere my writing flourished. I dreamed up new worlds and characters with my friends. I found my target audience. I expanded to fit my own skin, giving life to the construct that had been holding my place until it was safe to come out.

I studied grammar fiercely and felt secure in my talent as a writer, lavishing in the descriptions of the worlds I wanted readers to see and love as I did. When I was seventeen, I sat down and decided I was going to start My First Novel. Unlike the other times I'd written a couple of scenes, I swore to finish this one.

Three and a half years later, I did. I was in college at this point and started researching agents. I realized my story was far longer than the projected 100k average for fantasy novels. Mine was 150k.

Whatever. I was a good writer for my age. I hacked my book down to 130k and sent off a query. A few weeks later I got a full manuscript request.

Ecstatic, I printed and shipped the manuscript (this was, believe it or not, before most agents accepted emailed files) and dashed down to my local coffee-shop to wave the yellow request slip in front of my writing club and jump up-and-down like a Took on a sugar-high.

Secretly, I thought my youth would still be impressive. Though I was already 22, I was still at university. I still had this delusion that I was a precocious child and my youth was the selling point  rather than my skill.

A few weeks later, I got a rejection. It was a form, with a little check mark, and a neat cursive message:

The writing is nice, but the story is too long and slow.

I was annoyed. It was a good story. And it was way shorter and faster than other stories I'd read. AND I WAS TALENTED! After the initial despair, I realized my mistake had been relying on my talent--or my perception of myself as talented--to make up for whatever my writing lacked. Luckily, I had learned two excellent things from that rejection.
  • The prose itself was decent (though not amazing enough to carry a slower start like Tad Williams or Jacqueline Carey)
  • Talent and passion had let me coast this far, but if I wanted to get published, I needed to start pedaling.

I was annoyed at myself. If I hadn't been so convinced my talent and youth would get me published, I might have started learning mechanics sooner, started working on how to make my sentences clear and precise, my story structure logical, and my pacing on point. I'd wasted too much time trusting in my +5 Armor of Talent long after the battle against bullies was over. I had failed to hone my skills enough to be comfortable taking that "talent" armor off.

Does talent matter?

Yes, it mattered when I was young, but not because it meant I was a good writer: because it meant I had a goal to look forward to when I couldn't stand being inside my own skin. Something to be better at than other people. Part way through eighth grade, when a horrific family event caused me to lose both my best friend and my sense of personal safety, I finally did shut down. I went through class in a daze. I didn't do homework. I didn't see friends. I woke up in the middle of the night and sat on the couch, crying. I thought I was going crazy.

Then, one of my tormentors (who had somehow become friends with my brother) found out and used the worst trauma of my life to ridicule me in front of the entire cafeteria. I hurled my unopened milk at him and stormed out of the cafeteria, past the front desk, and out the front doors, crying so hard I couldn't breathe. I didn't want to be there anymore. I hated that school and I hated what it had made me become. I hated how weak I was and how broken my world felt, how quickly I cried and how often.

My seventh-grade math teacher, (an ex-football player and also a Mr. P) had been overseeing the cafeteria. He'd borrowed my notebook full of stories and drawings the year before, and despite my lackluster grades in math, encouraged me to keep writing and even found a contest for me to submit to. I was almost to the school's front stairs--stairs I'd been shoved down the year before by a kid on my bus--when he stopped me.

"You're going to be a writer," he said.

Tears rolling down my face, I didn't respond to him. I knew what he was afraid of. I've never considered suicide, and I wasn't considering it then; I just wanted out. I went with him to the guidance counselor. They called my mom, who came to pick me up. Before I left, he reminded me again that I was a talented writer, and that was something no one could take away.

Does talent matter?

No. It stopped mattering after that first big rejection, when I realized talent alone would never be enough to get me published. I had to stop thinking about it, or I wouldn't be able to move forward with my work. I wouldn't be able to accept the criticism I needed to improve if I didn't let down the shields a little. I'd always been good at accepting line-notes, but the ideas themselves? I'd never considered those open-season.

I'd constructed my entire identity around writing, down to my nickname: Scribe. It wasn't all I had, but it defined who I was. But my love of writing was deeper than the superficial idea that my talent for it could somehow protect me, somehow make people like and respect me. I love writing because I love the part of myself that creates stories. I love the part of me that can put words on a page and evoke images, create emotion, make it matter. That has nothing to do with talent.

Does talent matter?

Maybe. Now, at 28, I'm too old to be special if I get published. I'm not a prodigy. I'm not even sure I'm talented anymore because I still have this notion that "talent" somehow drives success, and if I'm not successful by now despite all the hard work I've put in since that rejection, I must not be talented. I know that's not true, but getting myself to believe it is sometimes hard, especially when I'm at the bottom of the hill, looking up.

It's a load of crap, really. I don't want to be special because I'm young, or talented "for my age", because that indicates there are insufficiencies elsewhere that people are willing to overlook because I'm not a writer in full blossom yet.

I want to be special because I'm a good writer, and because my stories have meant something to the people who read them. I'm not young anymore, and if I'm not talented I'll just have to work harder to become skilled.

This has not been an easy post to write, but I feel it's an important one. I love writing. I love it enough to let go of my out-dated ideas of talent and what it says about my future, my dreams, and myself.

Do you think talent matters? Why or why not? How has the idea of talent (and having or not having it) affected you as a writer or artist?

**Pictures from American Girl wiki,, and the ilovecharts tumblr

Goals for 2013

Photo by Markybon
Last night, I went to sleep hoping I could avoid the icy drive in the morning and sit at home with my work laptop, processing documents in my pajamas. Alas, the expected snow did some half-hearted acrobatics and failed to stick the landing, and by the time I slid onto my porch it was little more than a scraping of white icing on the roof next door. I was driving to work after all.

I live in the South, where asking people to drive in snow and ice is like asking a cat to walk when he's wearing a collar for the first time--a combination of tragic and hilarious. I don't claim to be much better, though I do know which way to turn the wheel if I start to slide. I wasn't surprised when, halfway to work, traffic slowed to a crawl.

I spotted flashing lights, but the smell of gasoline was the first indicator this wasn't the usual fender-bender. When my lane stopped, I glanced between the inching cars. The blackened husk of an overturned car steamed from inside a ring of emergency vehicles by the side of the road. There was no fire anymore, but it was clear the car had been blazing not too long before, though the shape of it was mostly intact. I hoped the driver and any passengers had made it out.

It was suddenly strange to think my largest concern not ten hours before was whether I could stay in my pajamas. Someone else has lost a car, possibly lost a love one; my day-to-day concerns can't compare to that. What if it had been me in that car? Would I be satisfied with my last petty concerns? Everything changes in an instant.

That sobering understanding got me thinking. I need to improve my way of living, because I don't want to have any regrets should my instant come. That may seem morbid to some, but when you're unhappy with how things stand in your life, the thought of not having the opportunity to change it is a bitter but strong motivation.

2012 saw two of the worst creative crashes I've ever had, brought on by my inability to adjust to a demanding work schedule and maintain a level of creativity I was happy with. I bit off more than I could chew, and I choked on it. Twice.

I began to doubt my ability to write well enough, revise fast enough, be organized enough to ever publish. I warred against a self-image no longer reflected in the 35 lbs I gained since leaving Japan or the skin problems I'd never had as a teen. I was too tired to write when I got home, but too busy trying to write to take care of myself or contribute to the chores at home consistently, which made me feel like a wretched slob.

I started personal training. It went well for a few months. I started Fit-2-Write. We managed three episodes before I hit my first crash.

I was scheduling every part of my day down to my two 15-minute breaks at work. I was doing two personal training lessons a week after work, D&D on a third, and trying to edit and post two podcasts. Also, I went to StellarCon, ConCarolinas, Sammy's wedding, and BaltiCon all before May. Saturday mornings, I was taking a class on Google+ with Cat Rambo. I was trying to revise the first 100 pages of The Mark if Flight, write a short story, read and comment on two short stories a week, update my blog, and plan out my next book and the revisions for HELLHOUND.

Then this happened: Do You Want to Do My Laundry?

Despite the playful tone, this post was coming on the back of a serious meltdown after a couple of major disappointments. I felt like I would never "get it together". I still feel like that.

I dropped everything, and when I'd finally stopped crying log enough to look at the detritus at my feet, I had no idea how to pick it all back up again. I'd latch onto something, wade a couple feet through the rest, and drop it again. I couldn't let go of any of it, but I couldn't figure out how to clean the mess of my creative life without shoving it all to the curb.

It was tough to fish out the things that mattered to me the most, and I felt unspeakably guilty for letting the others rest.

At the same time, 2012 was a year of many steps forward: I gained what felt like a whole new world of friends after meeting the other folks in the podcasting community face-to-face at BaltiCon. I hammered out two short stories, a novelette, the first six chapters of a new book, and yet another opening for The Mark of Flight, which is now beginning to resemble something like a pretty good book. I made a carved leather hat that actually looked like what I had in mind. I asked to be on panels at StellarCon and BaltiCon and was accepted. I was invited to attend and speak at New Media Expo. I took a couple of trips by myself and with friends, just because. I started kayaking again, bought a bike, and got a new car that makes me super happy.

That said, I refuse to have another year where the lows are as low as 2012's. So I did some soul-searching and tried to figure out what goals I could make this year that would help me live with fewer regrets. I'll split them up into personal and creative.

2013 GOALS


  • Get healthier - exercise, eat better, figure out the energy situation, ride my bike, relax
  • Go out and do things. With other human beings. And not just because I can use it in a story someday.
  • Spend more time outside doing things I enjoy, like biking or kayaking or camping.
  • Do more to maintain the apartment
  • Consistently pay all bills on time
  • Pay down credit card
  • Fill the well
  • Volunteer


  • Worry less about 'making it'
  • Chill, before this shit gives me heart problems
  • Finish first draft of Heretic's Resonance
  • Get Pendragon Variety - Issue#1 released
  • Make Season 2 of Pendragon Variety
  • Keep making friends who are awesome, supportive, and inspiring
  • Query MoF
  • Read more
I don't know if I'll be able to do all these things, and I'm almost certain I won't do them consistently. There's a certain measure of cognitive dissonance to pursuing your dreams during an economic recession. Last year it was cacophony. This year, we're gonna try to find the right key.

What are your personal and creative goals for 2013? Did you suffer any setbacks or disappointments last year? What improvements do you want to make?

How to Burn a Candle

Finishing a story holds exactly
the same amount of joy as eating
a giant bowl of peach shaved ice.
On Sunday morning, I finished a short story--the first thing I've finished since completing my first draft of Bull-Rushing the Ghost earlier this year. Of course, I've worked on plenty, and the short story is barely the length of two novel chapters in Heretic, but there's something about FINISHING a whole narrative that gives me a sense of accomplishment and slingshots me through the next few days.

This time was better than most, though. First, it was a story I'd been asked to write, so I was a but apprehensive about writing toward specifications. It turned out well enough, though. Second, it's the first thing I've completed since my Wiley Coyote-esque plunge over the cliff of creative overexertion.

About that cliff. Regular readers might have noticed I've neglected the blog over the past weeks. 20 days into NaNoWriMo, I waved the white flag. I could barely force myself to pick up pen or keyboard, and my utter exhaustion forced me to admit a fact I'd been trying to hide from myself: all year I've been burning the candle at both ends, trying desperately to balance a mentally-draining job with personal commitments, health issues, and the, frankly, alarming number of creative pursuits.

I write throughout the year, so while giving up on NaNo was a blow to my pride, it didn't hurt my page-count much. But I won NaNo the previous two years--in '10 because I was unemployed and had nothing better to do, in '11 because I guess I just had more energy. This year's defeat indicated larger problems.

I didn't realize how much I needed a break until I NaNo-Failed-To-WriMo.

So I took some time off. Three weeks, in fact. During that time I didn't try to write. Rather than trying to bend my protesting brain to the page, I cleaned, watched Netflix, slept, and read like a madwoman.

I'd forgotten how much I like reading. There was a reason I started this whole writing thing.

For anyone who's lit up both ends of the creative firecracker, I recommend bingeing on books.  I read serious books and "crunchy" books, YA and literary criticism, traditional and self-published, ebooks, audiobooks, paper, and hardback. I reread the Last Herald Mage trilogy. I finally read the latest Scott Lynch. I returned to Riverside. I even read an LGBT firefighter romance novel, which made me smile despite the "read that in a fanfic once" porn-industry sub-plot (yes, really). The binge reminded me how much I love falling into other worlds and stories, falling in love with characters like Atticus O'Sullivan, Wellington Books Esq., Deryn Sharp, Bard Stefan, Locke Lamora, and the Mad Duke Tremontaine.

Speaking of Wellington Books Esq...

I've finished the short story for +Tee Morris  and +Philippa Ballantine's The Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences: Tales from the Archives, and it's currently out with a handful of alpha readers. I should be right on time with the first draft.

Finishing a story after what had felt like a creative drought left me feeling like I was soaring in a chariot pulled by a team of Nyan-cats, because it was a great reminder of what I could do when I wasn't stretching myself too thin.

So, I have two writing-related resolutions for 2013:

1. Read at least one book a week, no matter what kind.
2. Learn how to burn a candle: one end at a time, because there will still be enough light to see by.

What gives you a creative high? Have you burned the candle at both ends? What do you do to relax when you've overtapped your creative well? What are your creative New Years Resolutions?

Writing Openings - Learning from The Hunger Games Model

Picture from
Openings are tough. For me, they're one of the hardest things to get right. The balance of exposition and action, character introduction and identification, has always been something that takes me much longer than it probably should.

What everyone tells you to do in openings:

1. Show what the main character cares about.
2. Threaten what the main character cares about.

There are a billion and eleven ways to accomplish those two things, and however basic they may seem, they're still hard to do. It's the how, not the what, that's a little tricky to me.

At the most recent meeting of my writing club, Raven brought up a point our friend Ed (of IGMS and Magical Words) had made on a panel at ConCarolinas: The Hunger Games has an impressively succinct opening.

Think about it; within the first pages we learn how deeply Katniss cares about her sister, Prim. Not only does she break the law to feed her family, but she also tolerates her little sister's cat, which she hates. Despite the cat being another mouth to feed, Katniss lets it stay because Prim loves it, which shows how deeply Katniss cares about Prim. That's all within the first two or so pages. This caring perfectly sets up the story's inciting incident: Prim getting chosen to compete in the Hunger Games, and Katniss taking her place.

Openings don't come naturally to me, and I tend to take a while to ramp up into the story, action or not. In conjunction with this observation, two of my beta readers for HELLHOUND, Bryan Lincoln and Darci Cole, made a couple of points that had me rethinking that opening. I knew I needed to make it succinct and precise, like the Hunger Games, and to do that I had to think critically about the opening. I came up with the following method for accomplishing the two elements of the opening:

The Hunger Games Model

1. Demonstrate what the main character cares about by showing them overcoming some obstacle/hardship or another because he/she cares about it. (Motivation in evidence!)
2. Threaten the thing that character cares about in such a way that forces him/her to take the first step along the story's course.

I know, I know. Reading it written out like that makes me sort of go, "Duh. Of course that's how an opening should be done." But it has taken several failures and some strict, sit-down-and-analyze time for me to figure out not only what needed to happen, but how to do that.

I came up with exactly how to harvest these elements from HELLHOUND and weave them together in a scene that is similar to what I already had, but will likely work much better.

Does your story's opening follow the Hunger Games Model? How? What other ways have you seen or utilized to open a story?

Tabletop Magic for Your Novel

Picture courtesy
This past week, I've been worldbuilding for Beggar's Twin. One thing I never really did with my other two books was sit down and hammer out details of how the Magic works before I wrote the story. I ended up regretting that during every stage of the process - I didn't know how to describe it while I wrote my rough drafts, and it affected the plots during revision and made them take longer. Sure, I eventually got all the pieces figured out, but it slowed me down.

Beggar's Twin has a very complicated magic system - more complicated than any I've written thus far. Not only are there a number of different branches of magic, the casting style is singing-based, which creates a whole new set of issues. I knew I was going to have to do a bit more planning here in order to keep everything straight, so I sat down with my friend Eric (an avid tabletop gamer who paid a lot more attention to the rulebooks than I ever did) and hammered out some rules for the magic system as if it were a tabletop RPG.

Here's how we got started:


First, I described to him the basic construction of the magic system. I'd like to point out that I already had the basics in mind. The following diagram is the division of magic: what type of magic it is, what effects it has, how it's categorized, who can have it, how many branches can they have. This is all information you need to know before you begin.

A few points of pertinent background information (and the notes and ideas they spawned) are as follows:

1. Each branch of magic resonates with a particular key. There are six branches of magic, and there doesn't appear to be a rhyme or reason for the particular key it's associated with. (There are probably professors at the University who devote their lives to finding significance in these keys, but in terms of the story, nobody knows.)

2. Sound is vibration, but not just any sound can be used for spellcasting - it has to be voice. However, I decided that outside sounds would certainly disturb the spellcasting, because of interference. (You know what that means for historical warfare? WAR GONGS.)

3. Given the above, Professors at the University will have something akin to giant tuning forks in a dissonant key to their area of teaching, so they can disrupt any student spells likely to go awry. All Magicsingers carry small ones to act as a pitch-pipe before singing.

After establishing the background information, Eric and I decided to work with the D20 system, since it's what I'm most familiar with. 

If this were to be a real tabletop game, I would probably spend ages and ages coming up with a whole bunch of spells for each branch of magic, plus a couple of spells that could be done with particular combinations like esper/divintion telepathy. This, however, is not something I'm concerned with working out before I write, so I'm skipping that part (for now).

Next, we started coming up with what's know in tabletop gaming as "Feats".

In the d20 System, a feat is one type of ability a character may gain through level progression. Feats are different from skills in that characters can vary in competency with skills, while feats typically provide set bonuses to or new ways to use existing abilities.

Read more:

Feats are all those special little quirks that make your unique magic system even cooler. In terms of narrative, they're what will help you show off your magic system in plot and interaction. Flaws are similar to feats, but hinder the character. Here are a few of mine:

Perfect Pitch: (this feat can only be taken at character creation) Your character will never have problems with pitch. +5 on all casting checks.

Resonance: (this feat can only be taken at character creation) Resonance occurs when the spirit is in perfect resonance with one branch of magic, allowing that person the ability to become more proficient in that magic quickly. It also cancels dissonance penalties for the target branch.

Dissonance: (this feat can only be taken at character creation) Dissonance occurs when the spirit is in a dissonant key to a particular branch of magic. Non spellcasters may take this feat without penalty and receive a +20 to Armor Class against the target magic. Spellcasters may use this as a flaw.

Focus: (GM awards this feat at any time) When a character has devoted significant academic study to his or her singing, they may be awarded focus, which allows the caster to subtract five points off all casting checks.

Tone Deaf: When a character is tone-deaf, he or she will have significant difficulty casting spells. No one likes to sit next to this character in class. -5 on all casting checks. -10 if another character is singing a spell in a different key.

Beautiful Voice: Teachers always say it doesn't matter how good your voice is, as long as you can sing on key...but spells always seem more effective when cast in a lovely voice. Teachers are also more likely to favor students whose voices don't inspire dogs to howl. +1 on all "damage" rolls.

Obivously, there's a lot more that goes into creating a tabletop game than just background, spells, and feats. This is, however, a really good start.

Do you play tabletop games? If your magic system were a tabletop game, what feats and flaws would you have? How would you use them in your story?