Grace and Kicks in the Butt

Last Saturday, I got back from the Viable Paradise reunion. Some folks at the reunion asked if the reunion was renewing my commitment to writing. No, I told them. I didn’t need any kicks in the butt about writing. I needed to reaffirm my connection to my tribe and enjoy the magic that is talking to writers about the things only we talk about.

And I told people that I was already committed to writing, and had in fact been thinking about how to get more writing time so I could finish things faster. This has been especially important to me since my next project will (probably) be my first novel.

At one point in the reunion I found myself talking to someone about how I was trying to find more time to write.

Every suggestion she made, I rejected. None of them would work for me.

Last week I read a series of tweets by Gail Simone calling out people who say they “wish they had time to write.” (It seems to be gone now.) Gail, for a long time, worked two jobs, had a family and wrote. Actually I only read part of the series, because it made me uncomfortable. “That doesn’t apply to me,” I told myself. I need to exercise to stay physically and mentally healthy. I need to spend time with my family. I have a fascinating but brain-intensive day job.

Over the next few days, I heard my own voice in the voice of the excuses Gail refuted. I felt, to use a fine Christian term, convicted. Yet, I didn’t know the way forward.

Last night I finally turned to the ultimate source of solution when questioning how to live my life: prayer. I asked God to help me solve this problem, because I didn’t know the answer. And then, around 9:15 (a bit early for me, but not by much), I fell asleep.

I awoke spontaneously at 4 am, perfectly rested and awake. I usually wake up with the alarm at a 5:30 and determinedly press the snooze button once or twice. After considering this odd occurrence, I recognized an answer to my prayer. I got up, had a cup of coffee and wrote.

You may see an active subconscious in this, or you may see the grace of God. Whatever it is, I’m grateful for the reunion, for my friends, for Gail F’in Simone, and for this grace.

Now I’m going to go for a walk.

Fights are boring. Except when they’re not

Last year I noticed that I am by bored by a lot of fight scenes, and their cousins, the chase scene. It started with police procedurals, like Major Crimes. When the cops start chasing a perp, or the perp takes a swing, we pretty much know who will prevail. So, at first, I thought it was just cop show fight scenes that bored me.

But that initial awareness sensitized me and I started to notice boring fight scenes in media other than formulaic weekly television, which, after all, might be excused for being predictable. Watching Star Trek into Darkness,* I was well-engaged until the lengthy fight between Spock and Khan. That scene went on and on, and bored me to fidgets, while also seeming horribly out of character for Spock.

Then I noticed it in books. In fact, in two of the excellent books I read in preparation for Viable Paradise I hit a wall with “action scenes.” In The Price of the Stars it was the last big chase in the book. The chase was well told, fit the plot, and, unlike in TV, the ending was not a foregone conclusion. But I really didn’t care about the mechanics of the chase. I just wanted to know the outcome.

In Jumper, the hero undertakes a series of three increasingly difficult hostage rescues. They are all well told and show his development, both in growing up and in using his teleportation abilities. But by the third one, I didn’t care about the rescue itself, even though it was definitely more complex. I was pretty sure he’d come out alive and unscathed, and I already knew he was both clever and evolving. Now the third rescue did throw me a bone – something the hero did had a graver consequence, so there was some purpose other than “who won, who lost”

I was still trying to figure out what my problem was with fight scenes when I watched the penultimate episode of the television show Burn Notice.

Now, if you don’t know the show, Burn Notice was a show about a defrocked spy and his adventures. He and his ragtag band had various adventures but usually (not always) emerged unscathed. So you would think this show had all the ingredients for fight-scenes-Nadya-finds-boring, right? And maybe in other episodes they did, but not this episode.

In the second-to-last episode of the series, the show’s hero, Michael Weston, and his best friend, Sam Axe, get in a fight. The stakes are high: Michael needs to get away from Sam to do what he think will save his friends’ lives, and Sam needs to stop Michael from doing something he considers suicidal. The stakes are high and these two know each other – they’ve fought side-by-side for years. They know each other’s every move, and you’re not sure if they’re still willing to pull punches or not. I was riveted.

That, mes amis, is a fight I want to watch. One where every move is about the connection between two characters, what they know about each and about what they’re willing to do to each other. I think I actually held my breath at one point, not knowing if someone was going to go too far.

I had the idea for this post in my mind last year, but hadn’t actually written it out for the blog until today. In the meantime, my Viable Paradise classmate Beth Matthews wrote a couple posts on the Paranormal Romantics site about using fight scenes to develop character, and dissects a couple from recent movies to show why they work. These posts are really useful discussions of how to apply this theory I’ve been evolving about fights that aren’t boring.
Dissecting Fight Scenes Part One
Dissecting Fight Scenes Part Two

It reminds me of what Margie Boule taught us about musicals in improv. Each song should move the story and leave it in a different place. A cop chasing a perp down an LA alley doesn’t change the story. Two friends figuring out how far they’ll push to try to save their friend’s life is riveting.

I feel like I’m just starting to peel this back. And I also know that a significant part of this is about what I like, not a general truth. Other people like fight scenes for other reasons – the science, the action, the cool angles. And I will always love some chase scenes for the sheer thrill of them – Bullitt and Ronin come to mind. This post is about what I’m untangling for myself. Feel free to chime in with additions, disagreements, and manifestos in the comments.

* No, I didn’t like the movie, but I didn’t realize that until the next day. That’s another post.

Viable Paradise 17: So Much Good Stuff!

This is the Info Dump post. It’s partly here for my own use as a diary, partly for curious future applicants, and finally for whatever fun my own classmates take in reading my blather.

There was so much goodness packed into such a fast-flying week. Like about half the class, I arrived on Saturday. I was in fairly late, about 9 pm but had time to meet my roomies, hang out in staff and generally feel like I was in the right place.

Sunday my roommates and I walked to town for a meal and shopping. Per Uncle Jim’s strong recommendation to coffee drinkers, I bought a large souvenir mug. I’m drinking from it now, and suspect it will be my writing mug of choice from now on. One of my lovely roommates would make a big pot of GOOD coffee each morning and we’d replenish our mugs from it. (She’d cleverly brought her own Warren Ellis “Where’s my Fucking Coffee?” mug.)

We talked all day about writing and books and who should read what and how the world would work if we were allowed to run it properly.

My notes about the day also say “so pretty.” And Martha’s Vineyard is!

Sunday night was our first group dinner and we received our bags, which included the pieces to critique. During the welcome, Elizabeth Bear told us that the goal for the week is not to fix the story you submitted. It is to teach you so that every story or novel you will write after this is sellable. That was a good rock to hold on to for the rest of the week.

Monday morning we had bleary morning announcements before our first group critique session. They gave us some critique tips: I especially remember Steven Gould saying, “Be kind, say something true, say something useful.”

The instructors also kept telling what to do if we were upset, and how to avoid being upset. I honestly hadn’t been freaked out about critiques, but they kept warning us so much not to freak out, that I started to worry.

It reminded me of the time we took my mother-in-law on her first roller coaster ride. She was keyed up and nervous, but not scared. Then I remembered that the only time people usually get hurt on a roller coaster is i they try to get off the ride. So I said to her, “No matter what happens, don’t try to get off.” Then, she was scared!

The Monday morning coaching kicked off five days packed with critiques, lectures, discussions, fun, and mandatory fun. In between there were always people to talk to, people to get hugs from, and space to go for a walk and let the wheels start to grind what had been given.

We had group dinners every night but Wednesday, when we had a group lunch. That gave us Wednesday afternoon free to work on our writing assignment, which we’d been given Monday night and was due Thursday afternoon.

Wednesday night one of my clever classmates called a cab and a group of us went into town for dinner. Again, any chance to talk with any random group of VP classmates was very fun and rewarding. We’ve all done different things, have different skills and challenges and were all willing to share.

At night there was often music, as several of the teachers and students had instruments or were otherwise musically inclined. Singing in a group is something I love and seldom get to do, so every night I sought out the music room. In retrospect, I missed out on some more writerly conversations, but at the time it was a perfect fit, for me and for “writer camp.”

The basic problem with Viable Paradise is that at any one time outside of formal goings on, there are five fascinating conversations going on and I wanted to be in ALL of them. I knew this would happen though, so I had steeled myself to accept it. We were all pretty interested in wanting to talk with new people and it was perfectly fine to say “Hey, I haven’t talked to you much, let’s sit at the same table during dinner.”

During the week, I found that not only was I staying up late, I was also waking up before the alarm by an hour or two because my brain was simply raring to keep chewing on what it was being fed. Somehow I powered through the week on happiness, adrenaline and west coast jet lag.

The staff at Viable Paradise are amazing. They are all former students (with one awesome exception) and are there to care for you physically and emotionally. I had an annoying medical issue pop up when I was there that necessitated two trips to the ER. One of the staff took me there and waited cheerfully while he had no idea when I’d be done. When I got back, a bit the worse for wear from the poking and prodding, Mac gave me all the hugs I needed to deal.

In fact during the week, I frequently found myself plopping down on the couch next to Mac or one of the other staff, just for a few minutes, to check in after a rough critique, or to share some encouraging comment that made me so happy that I was almost more fragile for having received it.

When I was reading other students recaps of Viable Paradise, one of the said, “Before VP I wrote stories. After VP I craft them.” I felt that way. My brain has been rewired and stuffed so full I still don’t know what all they’ve shoved in there. On Friday I tweeted, “My brain is like a bowl so full I can’t stir it.” Another student quickly agreed with me. So I still can’t tell you what all I learned or how I changed.

Here’s one thing I know changed. I reprioritized my life. At the airport coming home, I unsubscribed from news feeds that didn’t matter, including one about a hobby I realized doesn’t feed my soul like writing does. The first day I was home, I started purging books so I can remove a bookcase. I need room in my study for what I’m calling “The Big Wall of Plot.” I will continue to work to find more time to write, and to be part of my new tribe.

Thank you instructors, staff and students of Viable Paradise 17. I love you and will forever face out your books.

I Won’t Be a Miserable Writer: A Gift from Viable Paradise

As advertised, Viable Paradise rewired my brain and changed me into a different kind of writer. Jim McDonald says that Viable Paradise teaches us what might otherwise take three or four years to learn. What I wasn’t expecting was that it in one week it also took my soul on a journey, from start to finish.

Prior to VP I didn’t have friends who were writers. Not friends with whom I read, critiqued and hung out talking about writing. I honestly didn’t struggle much with imposter syndrome or its kin. I just enjoyed writing and was starting to learn the benefit of constructive critiques.

Prior to VP I’d never heard someone’s work praised and wondered why mine didn’t garner praise for the same things. I’d never had an excellent professional writer sit down with me and say “I liked your story” and then spend 45 minutes pointing out its valid flaws. I’d never compared a critique of my work with the others’ critiques and tried to tell who was “better.” I’d never read a friend’s story that was so freaking good I felt I would never be as good a writer as they. I’d never been in a room of mostly younger-than-me writers thinking “but they have twenty more years to write than I do!” And I’d abso-ma-fucking-lutely never heard the publishing equivalent of “Let’s do lunch” from someone in the business to a new writer.

Despair, insecurity, jealousy, and general anxiety all dropped in on me during the week. On top of that was piled all my normal “I’m in a group and I will not be OK unless everyone likes me!” angst. Thank God, I already knew, from the painful process called “growing up,” to let my values, not my feelings, dictate my actions. I didn’t let my newfound competitive streak turn me into a jerk and I forced myself not to simply run and hide. But I did spend a lot of the week with difficult emotions simmering, even as I was having one of the absolute best weeks of my life.

Saturday morning around 7 am, I received the gift. The night before someone had been given potentially life-changing praise. I was still dealing with the opposition of happiness for my friend and despair for myself. Then I thought, “Do I want to be happy for my colleague?”

“Yes, absolutely!” said my true self.

“Then if being a writer makes me jealous and miserable I’m not going to write. And I want to write. So stop it!”

The pain in my heart lifted, and I was purely happy. Happy for my friends and all their future success. Happy that I can write and write well and learn to write better. It was a blessing on my tired heart.

Years ago I used to collect a thing. The collecting community for that thing could be rather competitive as there were only so many things and they were sometimes hard to find. I found myself caught up in the swirl and making myself unhappy by worrying about getting the new thing.

I realized quickly that it was insane to have a hobby that makes me miserable. I set myself a rule: “If it’s not fun, I’ll stop collecting.” I happily collected the thing for many more years. Sometimes I missed out on the hot new thing, but sometimes I found one. Either way, I had fun. If the competitive anxiety started, I’d squash it with the stern reminder, “If it’s not fun, I’ll stop.”

Writing is more than a hobby for me. It is something I’ve wanted to do since I was 18, something I was only brave enough to do for the last four years, and something that I give up other fun for. If it’s not fun, I’ll stop. I won’t be a miserable writer. Other people will, inevitably, get something I won’t: a deal, a review, an award, a sales figure. I may not be happy for all of them, but I sure as as hell can’t let it make me miserable. I don’t want to be a writer if I can’t be happy for other writers.

There will be times the misery monster creeps into my heart and taunts me but I will shoo her out. I’ve done it for much less important things and I will do it for this. Feel free to hold me to it.

That perfect clarity, the trip through the valley and back, may end up being the greatest gift I received from Viable Paradise. Without it, I might have had years of pain and foolishness as I moved into the writing community. Instead, I went on a voyage, I crossed the sea, and in one week I was changed.

Viable Paradise 17 Acceptance

I know when I was obsessively googling researching others who’d applied to Viable Paradise, I always wanted to know who got in. So, future googler, I got in!

There was a happy dance, but Jim, mercifully, has not shared the video with anyone. After the week long glow wore off, I started to dig into making sure I’d read something by each of the teachers. It also makes me feel as if it’s more essential to make time to write, as if out of respect for the upcoming investment of so many people’s time, and my own, in my writing.

Bonus is that it gave me an excuse to reread Freedom and Necessity by Stephen Brust and Emma Bull and I love it even more this time, than when I read it 15 years ago.