I began writing at the age of eight. My first stories were 8-15 pages long, and featured some of the earliest versions of the stories found in The Seven Wars. Over the years, I pursued an education in English and Creative Writing, graduating with a B.A. in English from the University of Mary Washington. My series The Seven Wars is available on Amazon, and my next series, The Alkesh is currently in development.
If you follow me, you know I’m doing the Women’s Forum in about two hours. I gotta go get dressed, but I want to make sure all you people who give a shit hear what I have to say today, so I don’t care if it’s perfect. I’ll come back and edit it later if I need to. For now, buckle up. Today, shit’s gonna get real.
(“What do we say to Death?”
Download my slides here. (If you use Google Drive, it should work fine for you. No promises if you’re anti-Google, sorry. Ain’t nobody got time for that today, and let’s be real, I probably won’t get back around to this because Life. If you want to see the slides today, just use the damn Google for once. It won’t bite.)
Below is the “script” of my talk. I always write my presentations as blog posts first because Writer. I ad lib as needed from them in person. So, if you want to hear one version of this presentation, you can download the audio here. If you want to hear the live version… well, you should have signed up for the Women’s Forum. Catch you next time, loser. (jk, I love you guys.)
So, with no more ado. Here’s the audio, and I’m off to the Forum. See you soon.
p.s. you’ll find my “stage notes” still embedded in this blog post, so if you pay attention as you read, it will tell you when to progress to the next slide. Some information will be the same on “different” slides. That’s on purpose because Visuals help people not look at little ol’ me while I’m talking. It freaks me out. So pay attention, move the slides when it says, and it’ll make sense. Also, one of those stage notes is sure to make you laugh, which why I decided to leave it here. Have a good one, folks. :D
Creativity and the Authentic Self
Using art as a means of activism and self-discovery.
I have this friend, an old cowboy type, who never asks people how they are. Instead, he saunters over and drawls, “Whatcha know?” I like that because it invites people to connect intellectually, and not on such a visceral level. Most people answer, “How are you?” with, “Fine.” Come on… we know most of the time that’s a lie, or at least an oversimplification. Even if you tell me how you are, there’s no guarantee I’m going to understand your experience. Maybe you have a cancer. Maybe you have three children. Maybe you’re Hindu. I wouldn’t know what it’s like to experience life through any of those lenses, but I’d still like to hear about them. What is it like being you? What have you learned in your time here?
When I was an angsty teenager (oh come on, we’ve all been there), I had the idea to write a list of things I’d learned that year. Mostly because I had no friends and my parents went to be at 9:30, and I wanted to stay up til midnight. But damn, New Years is boring alone! It’s amazing what you can make when you’re bored and lonely. Anyway, I’ve done this every year since I first started in 2001. At first, it was every day things like, “got my learner’s permit, started learning to drive” or “today, I learned the oldest organism on Earth is a colony of quaking aspen named Pando, estimated to be over 80,000 years old.” (That’s true, btw.) Cool information, but anybody could learn those things. Today, most of life’s questions are only a google away. As I got older, I started drifting away from the information, and more toward philosophical observations about the world around me. In 2008, I wrote, (slide) “we’re not as big as we think we are.” (Clearly, I got kicked around a little that year.) In 2010, (slide) “I am beginning to think the meaning of life is infinite. I’m sure there is meaning, but it will manifest itself differently in each individual piece of the whole.”
It was around this time that I started writing things more personal and important to me. That was the point where I started to really come into my voice as an artist. Some of you, I think, have heard me speak before. You may know me as the author of a young adult fantasy series called The Seven Wars. You may recognize Lask– this guy [Vanna White the book cover images, because marketing, and they’re pretty, so they won’t look at you– and your broke ass needs the money. Someone might actually buy one today. Dammit, Elanor. Do it right.].
These are, as the name suggests, fanciful works for young people, but in writing them, I learned something about myself: (slide) I feel distinctly out of place, while simultaneously believing everyone and everything belongs here and is part of a much greater whole. This is the paradox of the creative spirit, I think. Artists are inherently weird people. The ability to produce art stems from an innately warped view of the world, for better or worse, and the practiced skill of being able to share your warped view with others through the use your chosen medium. I also learned you have to ask the right questions. And sometimes those are hard questions to ask… and even harder to answer.
You have to learn to acknowledge, accept, and enjoy your own weird company. This is a challenge for anyone, but especially someone the world thinks is already abnormal– your body is too big, you’re too tall, too short, too pale, too dark, you have social anxiety, you have ptsd, you have an eating disorder. Nobody’s normal; we all spend our lives feeling like freaks.
A lot of people shy away from getting to know themselves altogether. They take more shifts at work. They argue with the people around them. They lose themselves in the mindless scroll of social media. They take their existential anxieties out on the world around them, vent their fears into arenas that feel safe, pin the blame on things that are tangible. We distract ourselves with constant entertainment– our technology puts all the knowledge of humanity at our fingertips, and also offers a font of endless distraction. It’s easy to avoid coming to terms with yourself by never letting your mind wander deeper than the current spectacle at hand.
As artists, life doesn’t always let us sharpen our craft in the ways we think we should. We don’t have time to paint; we have day jobs, and meals to cook. There’s not enough quiet space to write, children make incessant noise, we have people calling us, showing up at our doors, pinging our phones with social media notifications. How can we be creative in a world that demands our attention be spent outside of our own heads?
I think a few of you attended my workshop here last year, so you may already know where this is going. Being an artist, a true artist, colors everything you do. Creativity is a lens through which we view life, and if we practice it regularly, sharpening your craft becomes a way of life. At it’s root, any creative work is simply thinking and feeling– the art produced is just the expression of the thought or feeling. Therefore, even when you’re too busy to put pen to paper, if you’re consciously practicing mental awareness, thinking critically about things around you and in your own head, considering the emotional and universal aspect of an experience you’re part of, you’re practicing the most crucial skill to any art form, and when you do have time to pick up your pen, you’ll be a better artist for it. Any artistic technique takes practice, so if you want to be good with a particular medium, you’ll have to make time to practice the technique eventually, but the technique is worthless if there’s nothing to express with it. Real art takes substance, and you can only learn to produce things of substance if you yourself are substantial. In order to become substantial in a way you can use creatively, you have to first exercise your intelligence and come to understand yourself as an artist, where you stand, and what you actually think about anything. In order to do that, you have to brave the nitty gritty of being honest with yourself.
Many people are afraid of silence. They’ll do anything to avoid it– play music in the background, leave the tv on all the time, turn on noise machines. Why are we afraid of silence? What do we hear echoed in the stillness that so frightens us? Maybe it’s simply the unknown of our own beings. It’s a scary thing to examine what’s in your head. It’s never comfortable to take a thought, pull out your magnifying glass and tweezers, and ask, “Why is this here? How did this come to be in my head? Is this even true? Why do I think that? Should I let it stay? Should I indulge this thought?” This picture here is a self portrait that I took three days after I came home from the hospital; I had been battling numerous infections, and was depressed and anxious about everything I was juggling at the time, I literally went crazy for a night. Police came and dragged me to the hospital in handcuffs. That’s what this crazy world will do to you if you’re not careful. I’d never experience anything like that. It was terrifying. Humiliating. It broke all the relationships in my life that were important to me for a while. Some are still broken. It’s the price we pay for the pain we carry just living here.
When I came home, I took week off work because I was too embarrassed and shaken to face my coworkers. I had sent raving lunatic emails to some of supervisor, sent the most random pictures to people who hardly know me, and myriad other things that will forever being shoved into my Closet of Shame.
But a few days into this shame-ridden vacation, I was looking for ways to take my mind off things. I’m a millennial. We’re big into selfies. I decided I’d see about snapping profile picture for Facebook. So, I picked myself up off the couch, put on real clothes for the first time in days, did my make-up, and took this picture. I just walked over to the window for light, held up the phone and pressed the button. Did a little editing afterward on the lighting and stuff, but overall, this is a fairly candid shot of me on that day. And it startled the hell out of me when I put my phone down to see what kind of shot I had gotten. I didn’t intend to take this picture, but yet… this is a dangerous woman. She’s standing there slightly bowed or cowered, with her arms tucked back, like she’s still feeling the bite of those unforgiving metal cuffs, and yet she’s looking up at the world like, “when I get out of here, I’m gonna kick your ass.” That’s a powerful photo. Especially when you the story of that woman on that day. But it’s also a selfie. It’s also art. There’s nothing wrong with embracing modern culture if you can use it to help yourself or someone else. Even if just taking that selfie helps you better understand what you’re going through, it’s still art, and it’s still productive. It doesn’t matter what you’re creating, even if it’s as vain and vapid as a good selfie. If it helps you think and express yourself, then it’s a good thing.
People are afraid to think. It leads us into uncharted territory, brings up unanswered questions, and people don’t like those. Makes ‘em squirm. Makes ‘em feel threatened. Threatened people get mean. Our amygdalas encounter fear and scream, “Oh god! Puff up! Yell! That’ll scare it off!” Why, though? Why are we afraid to think about things we don’t know and don’t understand? We like to know things. We’re all secretly nosy. Knowledge is power. For some people, knowledge is even moral superiority. Reality, faith, truth, these are things most people base their daily lives on. If you pull a loose thread in one of those, people start worrying the whole thing will unravel, and everything they know and love will come crashing down around their heads.
But here’s the thing: it doesn’t work that way. Thoughts are free. Nobody knows what goes on in your head (put down that tinfoil hat), and the only judgement you’ll get for it is what you give yourself. So don’t judge yourself for the things that go through your head. There’s nothing wrong with you for thinking, for using the brain that God gave you. That’s what it’s for; God will be proud.
History has shown ignorance is far more dangerous than knowledge. By not thinking, by letting ourselves be distracted into complacency, we walk, oblivious, through a world we take no part in, and that’s a sad way to live. By not thinking for ourselves, we give control of our minds to whatever entertainment or resources we consume. Thinking, truly thinking, is a deep and personal activity. Your mind is like any other tool; you have to practice often and diversely if you are to use it well. Mastering any skill requires you to learn about yourself, your abilities, your handicaps, what you can and cannot do. In terms of your mind, this requires you to address your own biases, your influences, your beliefs, what you will compromise, and what you will not. It’s an ugly process, but I promise you’ll be a stronger, more beautiful, more loving, and more creative person because of it. Sometimes you will overstretch yourself, feel too acutely the pain of the world, and come crashing down in a flood of tears and dismay. Sometimes you will disappoint yourself. Sometimes you’ll make people spitting furious. Sometimes your own hostility or prejudice may surprise you. You won’t always like what you find, but you don’t have to.
That’s the part I think people miss: learning who you are, becoming who you’re meant to be, it’s not about becoming perfect, or even better at something. Being yourself just means knowing who you are, all of who you are, and accepting it as part of your life. You don’t have to like it all, but you do have to accept that it’s there. The man who was born without legs has to accept that he won’t move around this world like most people. Likewise, some things in your mind you just have to learn to work around.
For some of us, that means accepting our minds don’t work like other people’s. I would even say it works that way for all of us. Regardless of whether or not your struggle is compounded by things like mental illness or trauma, you’ll still have to accept that you’re never going to be like “most people” because no one is exactly like you. None of us are. None of us can be. Normalcy is a myth perpetuated by people in power to keep you from realizing the power of your own uniqueness.
This picture was taken about eighteen hours before those cops dragged me out of my house last year. Even when I was going crazy, I was snapping pictures, scribbling writing notes, and sketching like mad. It’s like my brain was searching for anything to help it understand what was happening, but that it time it was a biological problem and no amount of soul-searching would save me.
That’s where art comes into our lives. Art touches us most at the moments we are most alone, hurting, and vulnerable. That’s why I personally believe it’s an instrument of God; Art is the one thing that can bring Light to someone no matter where they are or who they are. Art is one of those rare things that serves as a bridge between the single human mind and the vaster horizons of the world. Art gives us a safe way to explore what is within us, and share it with minds outside of us. It allows us to indulge whatever questions, feelings, beliefs, frustrations, or dreams we have. It means that even though we are alone, we don’t have to feel alone. There is no facet of the human experience that cannot be communicated in art. Whether it is through writing, or painting, or music, dance, acting– anything that provides an outlet for the creative mind allows us to share some part of our experience, and part of ourselves, with each other. That’s what makes art so personal and so powerful. The art is unique to the artist, and yet it tolls a familiar chord somewhere in the hearts of others. Art taps into the numinous force connecting us all, (slide) wait, no… (slide) the thing great psychologist Carl Jung called the “collective unconscious,” the shared humanity between people from all places. The ability to communicate through shared emotions, symbols, and experiences is art’s greatest power, and the tool that has the greatest potential to unite us as a community of human beings.
True art can only be made through the exploration of the human mind. Art is, at its a core, a communication. Whether you believe it is divinely inspired or not, art is the medium through which the abstract, the universal, the “form” (to quote Plato) (slide) is transferred into the physical world where others can experience it. If your art makes someone feel or think, then you have successfully created art. It may not be the best rendered art, you may have room to improve your technique, but if you are communicating yourself, the things that you think, then you are an artist, and the world desperately needs you– or if not the world, then the handful of lonely people who think and feel similarly to you.
I don’t think anyone can look around right now and say the world is a place of love and unity. It never has been. Probably never will be, since so many people prefer the comfort of their familiar mental boxes rather than actually getting to know each other, but if the world has any prayer at all of becoming a better place, then art is going to make it happen, because art is the place where we can unite in our shared humanity. It’s also the most effective medium for sharing our own experiences. Only by sharing our individual experiences, listening to what the world looks like to other people, learning from the experiences of others, will we be able to fix the things that divide us. Art is the most efficient and powerful way to spread what you believe and experience.
Art slaps us to attention when we are being complacent, and it soothes us when we ache in our souls. That’s what makes it such a dual force for social change, and self healing. If you can still make art, you’ll be fine. It doesn’t matter what you make. You don’t have to sit down to write a novel. Just write. Write a letter to someone, a few lines of verse, a few hundred words of a scenario you imagined in the shower. Doodle on your meeting notes. Arrange your fridge magnets into silly faces. If you still have the strength to make something, no matter how small, it means your soul is still kicking and you’re going to be ok eventually, even if it takes awhile. Sometimes life gets really complicated, deep, and heavy. The pain becomes immense at times, and some days, you question whether or not you even want to keep living. But it’s going to be ok. All you have to do is survive, and keep reaching for the will to create. Busy yourself with your work, and just live it one day at a time. You will survive, and it won’t suck forever. There’s no way to make life easy, but you will find you are strong enough. You won’t think so going into it. Every day, you’ll wonder if this will be the day that breaks you. But it won’t. Keep breathing, keep putting one foot in front of the other, keep making things that express you, and it will pass. You can cry, you can scream, you can hide or run or sleep, whatever you need to do to pass the emotion of the moment, those things are all ok, but it will pass.
Life won’t always be pretty. That’s what makes art an act of defiance and resilience. Art, for a moment, helps us remember that a bad day, a bad year, a bad stretch of years, doesn’t mean it’s a bad life. With any luck, we’ve got a lot of life left in us. Sometimes, you’ll be in the trenches, and you’ll be fighting. You’re not fighting for your spouse, your kids or your family. You’re not fighting for your career. You’re not even fighting for your art. You’re fighting for yourself, because that’s all you have at the end of the day. It’s the one thing nobody has any right to take from you, and the one thing nobody can. Fight for the life you want, the life that calls you, not the one anyone else thinks you ought to have. Live boldly. Create fearlessly. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you are, or what skill level you have achieved so far in your craft. Take pride in yourself, know yourself, and live by the things that feel true when it’s silent and you’re alone. Your art is your mirror and your megaphone. For some of us, it’s the only weapon we have, whether we’re fighting the world or what’s in our heads. If we want to stay alive and keep doing good while we’re here, we have to keep it sharp.
With The Seven Wars concluded, I am looking forward to focusing on my new project– an adult fantasy series, The Alkesh. I added a new menu tab for the series a while back, which you may have noticed. You will also find the working prologue on the page for the first book. I added some additional illustrations this evening, and plan on being more active with posting updates about my work on this project. I’m very excited about it, and look forward to sharing it with you!
The manuscript of the first book, The Rose of Avigdell, is almost done and ready to pass into the hands of beta readers. I am looking for a handful of new beta readers. If you are interested, use the contact form on this page to tell me a little about yourself. I am also thinking about pursuing agent representation for this particular series, since I think the story would probably work well with the traditional publishing track. If you happen to know of a reputable agency seeking adult fantasy, do let me know so I can give them a look!
Below is the transcript of a talk I gave at England Run Library on April 12, 2015. You can download the accompanying slides here.
Hello, my name is Elanor Hope Kindred, otherwise known as E. H. Kindred, author of The Seven Wars series, artist, and graphic designer. When I agreed to do this presentation, I’d originally thought I would give you all the usual shpeel about writing, polishing your work, researching publishing options, marketing yourself… but I’ve talked about that a lot in the past few years. My first book came out in 2012, and since then, I’ve given a lot of talks about how I did it, what kind of publishing platform I use, what kind of marketing techniques I employ, but that’s not what I do. I’m not a publisher. I’m not a marketer. I’m a writer. I write things. The rest is secondary, and to be perfectly honest, half the time I can’t be bothered with the marketing stuff.
So, I’m going to talk about writing, in the purest and simplest form. Writing really doesn’t have anything to do with money, or typesetting, or book signings, or giving talks like this. Writing is about you, a page, and some ink– or pixels, if you prefer to write on a computer, which most of us probably do these days. Ernest Hemingway once said, “There’s nothing to writing. You just sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” And that is the truth. If you don’t feel like your words are part of your life force, then they’re not the words you should be writing. You should write what calls you, not what you think people want to hear.
So what makes a writer, really? It not just someone who puts words on paper. Most people do that multiple times a day– we write grocery lists, and e-mails, and Facebook posts. Being a writer doesn’t always involve putting words on paper at all. Some people write one book, and never write another word. You don’t stop being a writer if you stop writing. So where is that line? What separates a writer from the rest of the population? I would argue that the state of being a writer is a lens through which one sees the world, and that’s true of any kind of artist– and writers are artists, wouldn’t you say? Artists see the world differently than the average joe. They look at everyday life, and they notice things about it. They see something ordinary, and it makes them feel something profound. Often, they don’t really know who they are. Writers are weird people. You may have noticed. F Scott Fitzgerald even said, “Writers aren’t people exactly. They’re lots of people trying to be one person.”
Writers are lots of people. We have a hard time defining ourselves, and sometimes we wear a different identity for each day of the week. Often writers have to write to find out who they are. Flannery O’Connor said once, “I don’t know what I think until I read what I write.” That’s probably true for a lot of writers. I took scads English and writing classes in school, and majored in English. In just about every writing class I had, someone would tell me something along the lines, “Don’t be afraid! You have things to say! That’s why you write!” That terrified me, because the ugly truth is that I don’t think I have anything to say. I never go into a writing project feeling like I have something to say. It’s only after I’ve started writing, after I’ve submerged myself in those words for while, I realize there are things that I’ve said worth saying. I didn’t intend to say them, or know what they’d be in advance. Just like this talk I’m giving now. There was a moment when I decided I didn’t want to recycle an old powerpoint and notes about “go get ‘em!” marketing. I sat down at my computer, and typed the words, “I’m not a publisher. I’m not a marketer…” and away I went.
A writer approaches life in a way different than the average person. We fill our time with different things, we look at people differently, we hear conversations differently. We have to do that in order to keep our creative reservoirs full. You should always be reading something. I’m always reading a book, even if I can only read a few pages a day. You have to read. See movies whenever you can. Listen to music. Go to that school play in town. The more you interact with art, the more you’ll find art inside yourself.
So, how does one approach a story? Where do stories really come from? There’s an ancient concept of creativity called the Muse, which is practically forgotten in the modern world. Sure, people reference it now and then when they want to be quirky, and say, “Oh, the muse is smiling today” or “You just need to get in touch with your muse!” But that’s not the Muse. The Muse is wild, like the wind. It doesn’t wait for you to send a letter. It doesn’t come when you call. It cannot be summoned. Like Gandalf said of wizards, the Muse is neither late nor early. It arrives precisely when it means to, and no amount of groveling or flash fiction exercises will make it show up any sooner. To truly court the Muse, you have to live like the Muse– on your own time, with your own mind, and based on your own passions. The story will come when it’s ready, and you have to be ready when it does. For me, it feels less like coming up with an idea, and more like I’m just waiting to catch one when the Muse decides to throw it at me.
I don’t outline, not at first anyway. The only time I ever make outlines is when I go back to rewrite books I’ve already written, which (by the way) is something everyone ought to do. When I outline then, it’s mostly so I don’t leave out something important in the fervor of rewriting. My Young Adult Fantasy series that’s in the library, and for sale online– I re-wrote each of those books at least three times, more for some. In the last iteration, when I knew I was writing to polish them for publication, I sat down, read the previous manuscript in its entirety, and outlined what was most important. That’s a useful tactic for rewriting. It helps you boil down all the fluff to what’s really important. When I’m starting a new project, though, I never outline. I just sit down and write, and half the time not even in order.
When you pick up a book, you leaf through it, and all the pages are in order. All the chapters are in the order they’re supposed to be in. There’s a beginning, middle, and an end (usually), but books are never neat like that when you’re in the thick of writing them, and if you try to write the book like it’s already finished, you’ll suffocate. Often my books start as a single scene, and that scene is rarely the beginning. Sometimes, the first scene I write for something new doesn’t even end up in the finished product. It’s not about where you start in a project, it’s the fact you start at all. I don’t write linearly. I don’t start at the beginning, and write through to the end. Some days I feel like writing action. Some days I feel like writing dialogue, some days a little exposition. I just go with it. I never tell myself, “No, no. Today we need to work on this.” If you feel like writing something, write it. Because you won’t feel like writing it later, and if you try to force it later, it won’t be nearly as good as what you could have done if you’d written when you had the fire for it.
That’s how the Muse works, in my experience. The Muse never delivers a finished book. Often, the Muse doesn’t even deliver something that looks like a book. It’s like buying furniture at IKEA. The Muse delivers fragments of some crazy idea, and it’s your job to take the fragments as they come, and then figure out how they fit together. Don’t fight it. Just go with it. Your writing will be a lot healthier and a lot richer if you don’t try to cram it in a box, or organize it into an outline. Not in the beginning stages. In the beginning, just let the words go where they will, let the story be what it wants to be. You might be amazed what will come out if you just let go and don’t try to rein it in with an outline.
There’s lots of resources in the world that claim to teach people how to write. There are tons of books, classes, webinars– all kinds of things– that can teach you techniques for writing, but they can’t teach you to create. I think that’s a mistake a lot of new writers make. They check out all the writing books they can get their hands on, they go to writing groups, they take Creative Writing classes, then they get horribly frustrated when they sit down at their own word processor and can’t seem to write one word. You can study technique all you like, but no one can teach you how to create. You don’t need to be taught how to create. Everyone has creativity that came into this world with them. Your Muse was born the day you were; you don’t need to look to the outside world to find it. You just have to tune out all that noise, all that education, and just be an artist. Let things flow as they will. Don’t worry about whether or not you’ve organized the plot properly, or whether your subject and verbs agree. At the beginning, just create. The editing will come later, and that’s the place to apply the education you have. Don’t teach yourself out of your innate creativity. Write whatever you want, whenever you want, in whatever order you want; that’s how you’ll write something worth reading.
Naturally, there comes a point where you have to sit down write all the connecting pieces, and rewrite things into something other people can understand, and that’s when it’s good to have some discipline. Find a pace that’s realistic and reasonable for you. I usually aim to write 1000 words a day, when I’m actively working on a project. I arrived at that number after years of writing, and getting to know myself as a writer. Start small. Try for 300 words. If that feels too easy, bump it up to 500, 700, 1000, 1500. You want something that makes you devote time and effort to the work, but not something that’s going to drive you crazy. For me, 1000 words is a happy medium. Some days I do double or triple that, and those are the days when I can lean back in the chair and go, “Yeah… I’m good.” Other days, I can barely force out 500 words. Those are the days when I have stop and think, “Why isn’t this working?” Usually, it’s because I’m trying to write something I’m not inspired to write at the time. If I shift to a different scene, sometimes it goes a lot better. Sometimes you just have off days– your day job fried you, your cat barfed on your bed while you were gone, your partner forgot to replace the trash bag again, and don’t even get me started on the people in Wal-mart when I just needed to buy shampoo! Life happens. You’re not a failure when you’re stuck dealing with real life. You’re not a failure if you take time off from writing to just live. The real trick is figuring out how to manage life in such a way that you still have energy left for words.
It’s tragically easy to sabotage yourself when it comes to writing. It’s easy to procrastinate, to put off writing until writing is no longer a habit. I went for a stretch where I didn’t write for nearly two years. That was hard to shake out of. It’s easy to feel like you’re not good enough, easy to convince yourself not to waste your time. I think all writers get to that point sometimes, and it’s a real writer who can shake herself or himself out of that.
I don’t like NaNoWriMo– that’s National Novel Writing Month, for those unfamiliar– and I’ll tell you why. NaNoWriMo is too big for the novice, and too restrictive for the pro. Anybody who finishes a novel can tell you that it comes in its own time, and forcing it doesn’t usually help. I once wrote a novel in three weeks. There’s another that I’ve been working on for three years that’s still not finished. There’s nothing wrong with either of those scenarios. Sure, it might be more impressive to be able to say you finished a novel in three weeks, but the time it takes to complete a book doesn’t have any bearing on what’s between those pages. If everything comes pouring out of you in a flood and you finish your book in a matter of weeks, awesome. If the words only come like a drizzle and it takes a few years for them to all trickle out, that’s fine too. NaNoWriMo can be decent motivation for people who don’t have a lot of practice self-motivating, and it’s true every now and then you hear about a gem that came out of it that made it big time in the publishing industry, but from what I’ve seen, that deadline usually only causes unnecessary stress and obsession, makes people feel guilty or like a failure if they fall behind, or it instills false confidence in the people who do make it on time. Whether or not you can finish a book in a month is no indication of whether or not you can write a book, even if you succeed in writing the right number of words by the end of the month. You might churn out 60,000 words in four weeks, but that’s pointless if it’s not something worth reading. You might get down 15,000 beautiful words in that month, and then give up because you missed the deadline and lost your motivation. How many true writers, how many good books, have been discouraged and lost because they missed a deadline and felt like they’d failed something?
NaNoWriMo is the one month of the year when everyone and their brother jumps on the “I’m a writer!” bandwagon. Let’s be honest, a lot of those people aren’t writers. You can enjoy writing, but that doesn’t inherently make you a writer. If you only put pen to paper once a year in November because of some contest, you’re not a writer. That idea offends some people, and I’ve had people get very upset with me when I’ve said that, and it’s true there’s not any one thing that makes someone a writer, but you know when you’re talking to a writer and when you’re not. You know when you’re talking to someone who genuinely sees the world through a creative lens, and when you’re talking to someone who just thinks playing “writer” is fun. That’s not to say you should be a snob to people. I always encourage people who tell me they’re doing NaNoWriMo– they might be one of the people who finds success that way, and it’s not for me to tell someone what’s going to work for them. I always encourage the people who come up to my booksigning tables and say they’re aspiring writers, even if they haven’t written a single word yet. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say everyone has the potential to be a writer. It’s up to you whether you use that potential to turn yourself into a writer or not.
There’s something of a poet in all of us. There’s at least one moment in every life when someone looks at something and thinks about it in beautiful words. Bursts of eloquence come at the most unexpected times and unexpected places. A writer is someone who learns to take advantage of that. To net the words as they fly through us. Words are around us all the time. The world is made of them. A writer is a person who can sift through them and bring out the good ones. And often, that happens just by living life and talking to people.
You have to talk to people. That’s the hardest part for me. I’m the biggest introvert you’ve probably ever met. Phone calls are the devil, and just going up the street to Giant because I’m out of milk is like having to psyche myself up to swim the English Channel. But you have to watch people. You have to talk to people. People are strange, funny, tragic, beautiful creatures, and the only way you can ever write about them is if you study them, all of them, indiscriminately. Sometimes I just stand at my office window and watch people moving on the sidewalk, or in the parking lot. Sometimes I stand in line at the grocery store, and watch the other people waiting. Why do they move the way they do? Why is that woman missing an earring? Why is that kid’s shoelace broken? Why does that old man wear a college ring where a wedding band should be? Where did that girl learn to say “cattywampus,” when her father just said “catty-corner”? How did my cashier get that little scar over her eye? People are full of stories. The littlest detail can lead to a vast story most people never see. That’s the lens of being a writer. You have to watch, you have to listen, you have to see things about the world and the people in it that most people don’t think are important. Often, the things people don’t normally see are the most compelling.
The most important thing about other people, though, is that they read. In a way, you must collect words from the world around you, then give them back to world after you’ve pieced them together into art. It’s pretty pointless to pour weeks and years of effort into something, and then never let any eyes but yours see it.
I was a bespectacled third grader when I first started writing. Eight years old, I wrote short stories. I kept them in box under my bed. As I got a little older– ten, eleven– I graduated to writing novellas. I also kept them hidden under my bed. One time, my mom was cleaning and pulled the box out. I don’t think she realized what it was– she probably assumed it was schoolwork– but in that moment, I was swept with such terror. I remember wishing I had a way to make myself just drop dead right then. Child-me couldn’t bear the thought of someone’s eyes on those words.
Why is that? All writers are kind of like that, aren’t they? Maybe not to the dramatic extent children are, but we get all antsy when people read our words. That’s because we are our words. Those words are a piece of you, and someone else is getting a look at a piece of your soul. That’s scary. It’s especially scary if you have social anxiety like me. I live my entire life feeling like I’ve just come out of the cafeteria lunch line, clutching my tray, surveying the room, feeling like no one is going to want me to sit with them. Imagine how frightening it is to hand someone a manuscript I’ve labored over, which contains so much of me, and wait. What if they don’t like it? What if it sucks? What if they think I’m some kind of freak for even thinking of the stuff in this book?
It’s scary to put yourself out there, but you have to do it. I have six books in print, and it’s still scary. I wrote the first draft of my first novel when I was fifteen, and for a few weeks after it was done, I just sat on it. I couldn’t bring myself to show it to anyone. Then I realized how sad that was, what a waste it would be. So, I let people start reading. Today, I mostly don’t think about people reading my work. It’s part of being a writer, and sometimes it’s nice. Sometimes people have good things to say about my work, and that’s always a nice ego boost and sense of validation. Sometimes people have bad things to say about it. That’s ok, and also part of being a writer. You have to learn to take the praise and the criticism. Sometimes it’s hard, but it’s unavoidable. You can’t reach your potential as a writer unless you share your work, and you can’t share your work without getting feedback. A book is a conversation between a writer and reader. If you don’t allow space for the reader to respond, then it’s not a conversation, and the book isn’t doing its job. You want the reader to respond, you want to make them feel things– even if those things are negative. If your words can make someone else think and feel something, then you’re on the right track as a writer.
One can’t be a true writer without a reader. Writing is often a solitary profession, but writers need people. We get material from people, we get feedback from people, and most importantly, we get read by people. In exchange, we share our artist’s lens with non-writers. We enable people to see the world through the lens of a writer for a brief time. Reading the words of another person is the closest our world can get to a Vulcan mind-meld, and it’s that kind of connection between minds that can bring about growth, change, and a better world.
The world needs artists, needs writers, because we see things through that creative lens. Artists provide a much-needed perspective on things. Often you can’t solve a problem without getting a different perspective, and that’s something that you as a writer can provide to the world. Never underestimate what you can do with your unique perspective, and the words you put on paper.
Just a few quick updates:
First, if you’re in the Fredericksburg area, I’ll be at Salem Church Library tomorrow (Saturday, Feb. 2nd) from 2 until 5:30. If you can’t make it, you can also find me at Porter library on the 4th from 5:00-8:30, or at England Run on the 15th from 2:00-5:30.
Also, I’ve begun work on the cover for book four, The Mirror Of Dùmsaro. Hopefully I will be able to show it to you within a week or two! I also got the manuscript for the book back a few days ago from an editor, so I will be able to start the typesetting process for it in another few weeks.
I think, too, that I may begin using this blog for things only somewhat connected to writing, or for posts of a more personal nature. I imagine it’s probably a little boring reading only technical things or professional updates, so I’m going to try to liven it up a bit! I may also start sharing some unfinished sketches, since there are usually several sketches per book that never develop into full illustrations.
As of this morning, book three of The Seven Wars is now available in trade paperback and Kindle edition! I hope you all enjoy this book as much as I do. It’s rather a turning point in The Somadàrsath work, as it is the story that changes Etheria and our dear characters forever. In doing so, it sets the stage for the epic stories yet to come and lays the foundation for just about every major event in The Seven Wars that is yet to follow. Don’t miss out!
I’ve created an audio pronunciation guide for The Immortal. I hope to make one for Bound By Blood in the next few weeks.
Immortal Names– 0:38
Mortal Names– 1:51
Immortal Places– 2:26
Mortal Places– 2:45
Other Words– 3:00
Aetherian Phrases– 3:22
The Immortal has been featured in The San Fransisco Book Review! The review calls The Somadàrsath “an epic series that is sure to capture fans” and says “the show of character personalities is subtle and brilliant…” You can read the full review here.
Today there was an article about me in the regional newspaper. It was an even bigger feature than I had anticipated, landing me on the front page of the Region section, and even a blurb on the front page of the entire paper. I’ve scanned the pages and put them into a .pdf for your viewing. Just click here!
My proof copy for Bound By Blood arrived today! I’m very pleased with it. The text looks great, and the cover looks pretty good too, although I need to make some minor adjustments to color so that it prints a little brighter. I’ll get started on reading it today, and hopefully have any corrections sent off by the end of the week.
Today is also my first book signing. If you’re in or around Fredericksburg, Virginia, I’ll be at Salem Church Library from 4:00 to 7:00 today. I’d love it if you came by to see me.
In celebration of the proof’s arrival, the first chapter is available for free reading below and on the book’s individual page under the Books menu at the top. You can also click here to download it.