On Persistence

Yeah, this was totally me.

Yeah, this was totally me.

Writing always came easy for me. When most kids my age were still struggling with mastering proper spelling, I was already scribbling away at elaborate fantasies inspired by the chapter books I checked out from the library. I wrote in my diary nearly every day, recounting adventures at school and cataloguing my dreams and aspirations (I wanted to be a vet and/or jockey, in case you were wondering). In high school, English was inarguably my best subject; I glowed with pride whenever my teacher read my essays aloud in class and jumped at the chance to complete creative writing assignments for extra credit.

But it wasn’t until I took an elective creative writing class in college that the idea of “being a writer” really took hold. The other students in the workshop were impressed with my writing; one girl said my style was “Fitzgeraldian” (considering F. Scott Fitzgerald was my favorite author at the time, this rated as high praise) and the professor said “the rhythm and pacing” of my prose was “exquisite.” (Other comments hinted that my prose tended to be purple and my plot lines were derivative. I chose to ignore those comments.)

"That which we call a…nope, I got nothin'. This poet shirt must be defective."

“That which we call a…nope, I got nothin’.
This poet shirt must be defective.”

And somewhere between one short story by Tobias Wolff and another by David Foster Wallace, an idea took hold: I could be a writer. I could put my innate talents to use and craft genius, wonderful, lucrative stories for a living. And so it began. I gleefully penned my first few short stories, and incubated the idea for my first novel. And then I wrote my first novel. My first novel! I had arrived!

I won’t lie: visions of sugarplums (or more accurately, six-figure book deals) danced in my head. But it wasn’t long before I realized the truth: that vision couldn’t have been more naive.

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To the Dump

Here's some necessary information!

Here’s some necessary information for ya!

Mention the words “info dump” to any self-respecting writer and they’re bound to go a bit green around the gills. The two dreaded words refer to exposition in a story or novel that, rather than being doled out sparingly throughout the manuscript, happens all at once. The action is moving along, the characters are doing their thing, and then all of a sudden–BAM! The author drops a big dump-truck full of information on the unsuspecting reader.

As you have probably inferred from my description, info-dumping is not a good thing. Even if the information is crucial to the reader’s understanding of what’s happening in the book, exposition done poorly is usually bad news for a story. The most rip-roaringest of adventures will screech to a grinding halt when faced with an info-dump. The swooniest romance will suddenly feel dry and boring. Mysteries heave a last gasp and then die.

But the problem is, exposition is hard. An author, who is intimately familiar with her setting, her plot, and her characters (having, um, created the whole thing), must find a way to give her readers enough information to understand the story without smothering them under a pile of history, backstory, and unnecessary detail. She must avoid info-dumping at all costs. But, to make her job even harder, she must also avoid the opposite problem–not providing enough exposition in crucial points, leaving her readers confused and frustrated because they don’t know what’s going on.

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Sympathy for the Devil

Just before the holidays, I turned on the Fellowship of the Ring movie in a fit of nostalgia and passively watched as I cleaned the apartment. And somewhere between vacuuming at Rivendell and swiffering at Lothlorien, I realized something I’d never realized before: Sauron is a terrible villain.

I mean, once you get past the admittedly terrifying lidless-eye Panopticon thing, Sauron is pretty simplistic as a villain. He’s evil–that’s about it. Why did he secretly forge the One Ring in the first place? To rule all the other Rings of Power. Why would he want to rule the elves, the dwarves, and mankind? Duh–evil! Why did he send his Host against the army of the Alliance on the plains of Dagorlad? Evil! Why is he obsessed with getting the One Ring back from Frodo and taking over Middle-earth? Evil, evil, evil!

Now I get it.

Now I get it.

As a writer, you hear a lot of the same advice over and over again. And when it comes to villains and antagonistic forces, the advice is always the same: one-dimensional villains just don’t cut it. Your villain must be more than just evil–he or she must be as well-rounded and complex as your other characters. The villain must have a backstory that explains his actions and lends his motivations depth and flavor. Furthermore, the villain’s actions must arise from a place of logic; even if it is a flawed, unsound logic, his actions must be comprehensible, if not sympathetic, to the reader. The villain’s role is to challenge the hero to reach great heights. He must act as both a catalyst for heroism and a foil for the hero’s own complex motivations.

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I do like fireworks, though.

I do like fireworks, though.

The advent of a New Year isn’t always an easy time for me. This year, January 1st found me consumed not with excitement and joy for fresh starts and brand new opportunities but with melancholy for another year gone. Instead of looking forward, I dwelt on the mistakes of the year: paths not taken, chances not chanced, opportunities discovered too late. Unfinished projects. Drifting friendships. Lost memories.

But then I chanced upon Neil Gaiman’s lovely New Year Wish post. This year, Mr. Gaiman wishes for us all to make mistakes, because that means we’re doing new things; learning, living, expanding:

“So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.”

This sentiment knocked me off balance. Throughout my life, striving for a sense of perfection has been both a guiding principle and a source of great disappointment. My quest for perfection pushes me forward, forces me to create and learn and achieve. But my quest for perfection also paralyzes me when I fall short, as of course I must. Perfection is an albatross hanging around my neck, a punishing reminder that nothing is ever good enough, beautiful enough, creative enough; never, ever enough. And if perfect can never be reached, what is the point of striving at all? But here is Mr. Gaiman, hero of my heroes, encouraging me to abandon the misguided principle of perfection and embrace imperfection. Embrace the inevitability of stumbling on this journey we call life. Stop worrying, and just do.

I am a unique and beautiful snowflake, okay?

I am a unique and beautiful snowflake, okay?

I’m not much of a New Years Resolution person. Too many times I have made a resolution at the New Year only to find that resolution soon forgotten or lapsed. And in my opinion, breaking resolutions makes me more disappointed in myself than never making them in the first place (perfectionist, remember?). But this year, I think I will make a resolution, of sorts. An anti-resolution, if you will.

This year, I resolve to let go of the idea of perfect. I resolve to dream outrageously and dangerously and not worry about whether or not my dreams will come true. To take the despair of failure and use it to make myself stronger, wiser, and kinder. To look behind me and see not the things I didn’t accomplish, but the things that I did. To value my mistakes for what they are; necessary symbols of growth, exploration, and living. I resolve to gaze resolutely forward, reveling in the capacity of the future rather than floundering in the immutability of the past.

And all the things I’m scared of doing? I resolve to do them too. Now and forever.

Do you fear your own imperfection? Do you embrace mistakes? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below!


“Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.”  –Pablo Picasso

I’ll tell you a secret: inspiration is a fickle, fickle mistress.

The enchanted well is full of absinthe (according to Hemingway.)

The enchanted well is full of absinthe
(according to Hemingway.)

One of the questions people ask me most frequently about my writing process is, “Where do you get your inspiration?” Despite the frequency of its asking, the question usually catches me off guard, leaving me struggling to answer with half-sentences and mixed metaphors. Why is the question so difficult? Not because I am never inspired, nor because inspiration doesn’t exist, but because at any given time I have no idea where my next jolt of inspiration will come from. There is no enchanted well that I drink from, no mystical invocation to a Muse, no Zeus’ fire bolt from Olympus. Gee, I wish.

Nope. There’s just me, and my weird little brain, and the world around me.

Inspiration comes from all sorts of places, and sometimes nowhere at all. Confused yet? Let me try to explain. An dream, an image, a phrase, a name, or even a single word; sometimes the simplest, most banal occurrence can set off a veritable waterfall of ideas that lead to plot outlines, interesting characters, entire made-up worlds. One of the major world-building elements in my most recent novel was based almost entirely on a recurring dream I had years ago. I wrote a short story inspired by nothing more than a short phrase that popped into my head one random afternoon. Reading, living, watching, listening, being. Daydreaming. A lot of daydreaming. And sometimes that’s all it takes.

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