Notes from the Grindstone

August is a special month for me because all three of my kids have birthdays. It’s also when they go back to school, which, if you haven’t been paying attention, is going to be a bittersweet moment for a lot of parents because of how the pandemic has disrupted everyone’s lives. My kids had to finish a school year online, were quarantined most of the summer, and then had to do their entire last school year over Zoom. We ended up bringing them back for the last week and a half, which turned out to be extremely helpful for their (and our) mental health. From there, summer school helped to rekindle their need for social interaction — something I hope we all can recognize as an important component to child development that was taken away from a whole generation of kids old and young — and now we’re all looking forward to returning to some semblance of normalcy where kids can be kids around other kids.

I say it’s bittersweet because the pandemic has provided a lot of folks with some time to evaluate their priorities in life and realize how much time we spend on trivial nonsense when the answers to everything are most often right in front of us. This past year I’ve been able to connect with my kids more. I’ve taken a WFH job with a statewide startup that is very demanding, forcing me to reflect on what work/life balance means in my world. My kids have fell in love with books and reading and art and creative self-expression. And my wife and I feel more close than ever.

Whether quarantine is a prison or not may largely be a product of socioeconomic circumstances, and I fully admit that I have the privilege of seeing the lockdowns as an opportunity to focus on me. I’m thankful for the immediacy of my time to myself because it really did force me to quickly pursue a daily cadence that avoided nervous breakdown and mitigated the effects of anxiety and regret — the two things that prevent us from appreciating the moments around us.

As a speculative fiction writer, it’s difficult to live “in the moment,” but for me daydreaming about my stories and possible futures is different from anxieties about the future or regrets about the past. It took me a long time to figure that out but now that I’m here, I’m glad I put in the work; I had a podcast called Coping with Creativity that was a kind of self-reflection in the open, different from what I’m doing here by a long shot, which allowed me to flesh out what I need to flesh out so that I could give myself permission to make creative expression a priority in my life. Whether you’re trying to live in the moment more or not, knowing where your limits are when it comes to work/life balance and — and here’s the important part — enforcing those limits by holding yourself accountable to them is the key to surviving the day to day of this reality.

I got a pass on one of my stories that I really like, and although the letter was canned it did eat away at me (as rejection letters tend to do sometimes because we’re only human) in that I felt like there was a better way to tell the story. In this particular case, it actually went one step further: I felt there was a better story to be told in there.

I’ve noticed that, for some stories, it feels like they’re complete after a few rounds of rewriting and polishing and so I submit them. Then later, after I’ve ostensibly moved on to other stories, I’m laying in bed at night thinking about what I could have done differently and how I might change the outcome of the story altogether. Am I writing a different story, or am I improving an existing story? What is improving, anyway? Isn’t that subjective? (And whose subjectivity, if it’s me tossing and turning about a story that I wrote not long ago?)

It’s that regret & anxiety problem creeping up again. Regret keeps us living in the past, and anxiety keeps us living in hypothetical futures.

My writing process goes like this: I generally draft an idea on paper, then move it to a word processor. After tinkering with it and fleshing it out a bit, I’ll set the page to have a large right margin and then print the story out for a hand pass.

Here’s what that looks like:

I do it this way because I feel like my brain gets too distracted when working on a computer. I finished my second novel by hand while on jury duty during all the pre-trial waiting around time. That experience taught me two things: my brain can get into and stay in the flow of writing much easier if I’m using pen and paper, and my personal process of drafting is cyclical and labor-intensive. To each their own, I guess.

I have adopted a system that helps me feel productive, even though this system makes it slower to churn out stories. For me, being a productive writer means making progress toward a story being finished in a way that makes sense to me. I can’t just write in a word processor because my brain can’t reason about a story’s state unless that story goes through various iterations that I can touch and hold with my hands. By doing a first draft by hand, then entering it into a word processor, then printing it out and doing another hand pass, then finally entering it back into the word processor again, I force myself to walk my story through the revision process over and over again. This is incredibly helpful for my brain, and is something that helps me personally feel productive.

To illustrate, here’s the process that Evolved went through:

  • For each chapter, I wrote the first draft by hand.
  • Transpiling the chapter from notebook to word processor gave me my first revision pass.
  • I tinkered with the words a bit more, then printed out the chapters with a large right margin.
  • I did a hand-pass on these chapters, which amounts to a second revision.
  • I then transpiled the hand-pass chapters from notebook to word processor, giving me a third revision process.

Generally at this point, I don’t print it out or do anything by hand anymore. Everything is in the word processor — unless significant changes are going to be made to the story. For example, there’s one story I’m working on that has a small chapter that connects the first part of the story to the denoument, and this is one that I have rewritten over and over again in both a word processor and on paper. I find myself going back to pen and paper when I’ve spent longer than a few days trying to decide how to revise something; I try not to get too hung up on mental planning, and instead focus on the creativity that comes when I am in a deep flow state.

Even though I’ve grown up with computers my whole life, deep flow on a computer puts me in “tinker” mode. I have always enjoyed learning new languages and building little tools and automations. In the last decade I’ve been studying programming language theory and building toy compilers and languages as a means of relaxing while still scratching that itch of needing to tinker. My writing suffers from this mentality, though. Tinkering is great when I am designing a language or an automation, but that mindset lends itself to multiple equally fascinating paths that my stories can take. I think this has something to do with how quickly my thoughts and ideas can be transcribed at the keyboard into tangible words and expressions of those ideas. On paper, my brain is forced to slow down, and in that deliberate slowing down of thought transcription there must be something in my brain that turns the set of nominal ideas into a set of ordinal ones.

The last thing I wanted to mention was all my work I’m doing on a mom & pop fiction startup called Proton Reader. My wife and I are going to be compiling anthologies of short stories into digest-esque books to help broaden the market for anthologies of short stories (speculative fiction, specifically), and I have two side projects that involve periodicals: Proton Magazine, which may be a digital-only webzine, and an unnamed (at this time) flash fiction periodical. Weighing the pros and cons of digital-only or print-and-digital takes up a lot of my planning time at this phase, but the gist of things is that we’ll be paying competitive rates to authors and ensuring a strong royalty structure for our publishing artifacts. Be on the lookout for more on these fronts in the coming months as we eye January of 2022 as our official launch date.

I hope you have a great month, and I look forward to both of us completing some of the goals we have on our to-accomplish list.


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