Attention, priorities, tying off

A while ago I listened to a Dutch mystery podcast called De Brand in het Landhuis, in which the host tries to find out what happened to an eccentric aristocrat who died feet from his front door when his mansion went up in flames in the early 2000s. The mystery is interesting, but I liked the framing even more: host Simon Heijmans talks about a seamstress in the town of Vught (where the mansion stood) who used to babysit him and his sister. She showed them how to make something out of what seemed like scrap, and how to elevate a piece of clothing into something more useful, more yours. You did it by giving it your time; by turning your attention to it. He goes on to give the mystery his attention, guiding the listener through twists and turns that could never have been uncovered by a person with only a casual interest in finding out what happened. Past events can’t be changed, of course, but what their retelling means to a community can. By telling this story and highlighting different viewpoints, as well as talking to experts, the host transforms it.

I keep going back to the word use in the podcast. Because I don’t read or hear Dutch in my day-to-day life—a fact I keep trying and failing to change—it sticks with me better than English. “Ik heb het aandacht gegeven. Ik heb er tijd ingestopt.” (“I gave it attention. I put time into it.”) The host speaks slowly to keep things dramatic. He makes the act of directing your attention sound intimate.

Maybe it is. Lately I’ve been more cognizant of my own time, as well as who and what I pay attention to. Working a physically taxing, repetitive job helped me feel the value of my time in a way I’d always understood in theory but struggled with in practice. It remains hard to use time wisely when I have it, to be self-motivated and remember how much I’d love to be home working on my own stuff if I didn’t have the opportunity, but I try.

This being said: the quality of my attention varies. I’ve been doing a lot of Healthy Minds meditations, and in learning to notice my thoughts I’ve become aware of the way my mind squirms from the task at hand when I first sit down to write. I used to dismiss this as laziness, but when I sat with the discomfort I realized it was closer to panic. Even though I know nothing bad will happen if I sit with a document open in front of me just looking, that static cursor on my screen makes some switch flip in my brain. It tells me I have to do something now or fail utterly. Having realized how much my mental backdrop resembles a screaming goats video when I try to do creative work, I’m actually more surprised I ever wrote anything than I am frustrated with myself. Go, past me! Write through the pain!

Now that I’m fully enlightened slightly more self-aware, everything is that bit easier. The start of a session is always hard-ish, but I’m grateful for the ways I’m not fighting myself and the tools I have to calm myself down when my mind wants to do its skittish horse impression. I’m getting better at not letting it run me over. Playlists help; accountability partners help. Thinking “WHY CAN’T I JUST DO THIS EASY THING GOD I’M SO USELESS” does not help. Cort from Healthy Minds would not approve of that last one and if you’re still engaging in that kind of thinking maybe you should download the app too.

I’ll stop patting myself on the back there and finish with an update. Ash and I have been extremely happy to start work with our new agent, Lauren Bieker, and are making edits on our latest book, a magical murder mystery set in high society. My solo project (an esports romcom) is getting little additions here and there but simmers on the back burner. I stopped work at the cafe in June (right before Sean Astin visited during a con—a fact I will never get over) so I’m writing/farming fulltime now. That doesn’t change the fact that our farming exploits have been unimpressive, and we have a lot to learn about planting things in clay. The mushroom logs Shady inoculated in spring are the exception to the rule. They’ve started to fruit, and the harvest has been delicious so far. Grow, tiny children of entropy… feast upon the decay…

Hope this blogpost finds you well, reader, and that you’re spending your time and attention on things and people you care about!  And if not, I hope you’re being well compensated. Until next time!

No more summer

Summer was my favorite season as a child, which as an adult has led to a fall tradition of realizing summer is almost over and wistfully listening to all the songs about summer I meant to enjoy while it was still in full bloom. A non-exhaustive list includes Summertime Sadness by Lana Del Rey (for obvious reasons), Trains by Porcupine Tree (“always the summer is slipping away / find me a way of making it stay”), and Stolen by Dashboard Confessional (“before the gold and the glimmer have been replaced / another sun-soaked season fades away”). Living in places where good weather and/or daylight hours dwindle in fall encourages this summertime melancholia like nobody’s business.

So it was strange, from 2021’s spring into 2022’s fall, to experience over a year of “summer”—which is to say, a weather pattern my northern European brain registered as such. The season I’d previously struggled to hold onto just kept going. My life was in weird and often painful limbo—between moves, no publishing progress, frequent housing setbacks, loss—and outside just stayed pleasant. Pleasant included torrential rain at times, but it never stuck around.

Summer stuck, though. And I don’t think my mind or body knew what to do with it. Through and even before the pandemic I’d relied on changing seasons to create a pattern I could fall into. The changing angles of light; the first day of wearing my winter coat; the smell of spring when it was just starting. Even the things that made me mournful, like short days and the end of a year, still helped mark the time. There was the looking forward and the looking back and the attempts to be present before inevitable changes came again.

I didn’t mind it being summer for a year, but I’m glad to have seasons I recognize back. I’m even more glad that finally—finally!—my loved ones and I have moved into our house on our land. The leaves changed colours spectacularly here in Tennessee, and we just had some extremely cold weather and learned what the hills look like covered in snow. No more limbo and no more endless summer, with 2023 right around the corner. It scares me a little because the past few years have felt so dire, but if I bat the anxiety away with a big stick there are a lot of things I’m looking forward to.

If you’re reading this, I wish you a 2023 filled with good and gradual changes. Problems you can work through and ideas that excite and inspire you. I’m wishing myself the same. Good luck to all of us, and happy 2023 when it comes. 💕

Inspiring mediocrity

In the month of resolving to be, live, and work better, Shady and I decided to give my parents’ long-maligned roomba a chance to prove itself. My dad’s livestream set-up in the dining room was torn down prior to his long absence over the holidays, so the floors were clear of all but furniture. Mum was also absent over this period, but she had—conveniently for my narrative—set herself up as The Doubter. Her belief in Roomba-san’s ability to clean the house was limited. Sure, it would work eventually, but it was too noisy and slow to bother with.

So we turned it on from its sad charging podium where it had languished.

People who don’t have pets probably do pretty well with a roomba. There’s a real drive to watch it work, even though—as mum had promised—its trundling paths through the house were ridiculously ineffective. Perhaps because of this, the times I saw a visible fleck of something on the floor get hoovered up into the tiny Roomba mothership registered as real triumphs. Look at that! It ate it! It ate the dirt! Good Roomba!

Now as it happens I have a cat, so the entertainment factor of watching Roomba-san work tapered off faster than it might for non-pet-havers. My involvement was reduced to finding the roomba on cliff edges or under furniture and clearing the trap and brushes when a little song summoned me to action. The less attention I gave it, the more effective it seemed. Sometimes it even found its little charging platform when it was done. Shady and I were amazed at its good work—and I was touched. The post-pandemic world does this to you: you see a little robot doing its job according to its programming and your heart soars.

Ridiculous, of course, but I let it impress me nonetheless. It was a reminder—and I need lots of reminders—that efficiency doesn’t always matter. Often I get stuck in a mindset of continual disappointment. I want to be good at the things I do the first time through. I want measurable, purposeful strides in actual directions—so the days spent bumping against chair legs register as failures. They are failures, in fact, but if I accept them as part of my process I can let them go. I’m still trying to accomplish my goals, and I’m still existing according to my programming—which yeah, might need an update—and if I throw in a few moments of laughing at something stupid the day is probably worthwhile.

So that’s my long-winded “I was inspired by a roomba” story. Don’t get me started on my cat, who walks around with that stupid little brain of his behind his stupid little cat face and never questions his right to exist. He is, in case it could be doubted, not a fan of the roomba.

We’ll see whether roomba useage continues on once my Doubting Mother returns, and I hope she feels suitably harrassed by this blog post. On the publishing front: no movement with the manuscript we have at editors, but have several drafts of new things in the works (both solo and together). You can guess how the roomba metaphor works here. If at first you don’t succeed…

An exercise in liking things

When I was in high school, my English teacher gave all his senior English classes an assignment: pick something you don’t like, that you’ve written off as “not for you”, and find someone who likes it to reintroduce it to you. After they’ve done their worst, write a paper on how/if your views have changed. It’s been over a decade, but I still think about that assignment often. I love the premise of it: that there’s value in liking things, and that understanding someone else’s enjoyment can help you enjoy it too. It flies in the face of that edgy attitude of defining yourself by what you don’t like instead of what you do. It says joy has value, and can be shared. The sound you hear just now, of wind whistling by your ear, is the sound of me fist-pumping in agreement. Yeah! says my furiously pumping fist. Finding what works in a narrative is just as important as finding things to criticise!

I thought about the assignment again last month when I read Austin Chant’s Peter Darling. I was utterly enchanted by this Peter Pan story. Something about a transgender Peter, who was just as gutsy and obnoxious as all the other Peters but had been named Wendy at birth, allowed me to connect to the narrative in a way I never had before. It was eye-opening. At long last the nostalgia and poignancy of Peter Pan made sense to me, instead of swinging wildly between too-childish adventures in Neverland and too-serious depictions of adult life outside of it. In Peter Darling I found my handholds into a world I’d wanted to like but never really managed to get into. It felt wonderful. And it was a reminder—again—that one person’s passion for a thing can induct others into it. The thousands of Peter Pan spinoffs in this world will be more accessible to me from here on out, and I have Austin Chant to thank for it.

I didn’t really go into Peter Darling hoping Chant could warm me to Neverland, however. I just thought the premise sounded entertaining—which brings us to the Goodreads review section. Most reviews start in one of two ways: either with the reviewer stating they love all things Peter Pan and have to read anything Peter Pan related, or with them stating they don’t really care for Peter Pan but this book caught their eye. It’s a reminder of why these retellings are so lucrative: either you tempt in people who already love the source material, or you catch people in some other way and they’re not put off by the link to the original. There’s probably a cap on how many retellings a person can take in a year, but on the whole it’s inoffensive.

Public domain classics aren’t the only thing I’m interested in learning to like. Over the past few years, exposure to one A. A. Lukens as one of my movie-watching companions has turned me into a person who can appreciate well-choreographed action sequences (what have I become?!) and outright enjoys horror movies. Their enthusiasm for good action and squeals of bliss over the little plot twists that happen within a hand-to-hand fight might not turn me into an action lover, but I’ve at least ascended to being an action appreciator. This improves my life even if I never actively do anything with it. Something that bored me now entertains me. Score!

It feels small, going through life and trying to find the little bits in everything that appeal to me, but it definitely keeps me going. It draws me out of my comfort zone and expands it. It doesn’t save or cure anything—but I like it, and I recommend it, and I think reading and watching and listening widely can only make for a more interesting world. Is there anything you’ve learned to like, after a tricky start?

Pandemic travel time

Sometimes when you live in weird immigration status limbo you have to travel in a pandemic. I thought the state of international travel might be of possible interest to people, so I’m reporting back after an essential trip to the USA—though I don’t know how many people actually can travel there right now. I’m a British citizen with a green card and a reentry permit. If I was solely British, the travel ban to the USA would have kept me out. Without further ado: my experiences.

I left on the 21st of October from Edinburgh Airport. The airport had a one-way system set up with little plane-shaped arrows telling us where to walk, though as usual not everyone was following it. You were meant to wear your mask in all public areas, but you were allowed to take it off in restaurants or briefly while eating. Since there were less people than usual, it was easy to space out.

A mannequin in an airport shop wears smart clothes and a mask.
A mannequin in an airport shop demonstrates fashionable mask-usage to complete an outfit.

Our flight was delayed for several hours because of bird(s?) getting sucked into one of the engines, forcing a safety check, but I doubt this had anything to do with the pandemic. It did give me some insight into my fellow travelers while I dovered on a bench by the gate. A group of student-aged Americans could just as well have been from a badly written film, with the guys posturing and the girls listening and looking pretty. In the long delay of our London flight they briefly discussed going to Tenerife after an announcement about a Tenerife flight. (“Tenerife is awesome. Should we just go there?” “We’d have to quarantine for 14 days.” “It’s totally worth it man!”)

An English woman complained that all her travel had been delayed like this, and she suspected airline companies were purposefully cancelling or delaying flights to funnel the too-small pool of travelers into less airplanes. She’d had to cancel a trip to some more exciting place and come to Scotland instead, but she now had regrets given all the inconveniences. The woman she was complaining to sounded Scottish as she announced “I just want to get home.” My stomach dropped as she went on to say she’d come up to Scotland too late to see her mum one last time, and her brothers didn’t need her help with the funeral arrangements. She wasn’t crying, but her voice was thick as she finished with “I just want to get home and get a cuddle.” It was a reminder of what too many people are going through, and I’m pretty sure the initial complainer felt terrible; I would. This is why complaining to random strangers about minor inconvenience is usually stupid but especially stupid now. Oof.

Eventually our flight boarded, and we all got a row to ourselves. Three whole seats just for me! Sleeps ahoy! The man sitting in the same numbered row on the other side of the aisle had three seats too, as did everyone else on the plane except those traveling with family. We were all required to wear our masks except while actively eating, as usual.

Aerial photo of Edinburgh from the south.
Not quite sunshine on Leith, but it’s close enough.

In London I found out I’d missed my connection, and British Airways put me up in a Heathrow-adjacent hotel called Sofitel to wait for my flight the next morning. Mask policy was the same as all other places: mask on in all public areas, except while seated at a restaurant. The hotel bed could have fit about four of me. You’d think I’d wake up refreshed the next day, but in actuality I was early morning-stupid and almost managed to miss my rescheduled flight because I zoned out so hard. Oops. Sorry, everyone.

Again: three seats to myself, and this giant transatlantic plane had three seats in the middle that weren’t being used. Seems like they could have positioned us in a grid to maximise space between passengers, but instead we were all lined up next to the windows, with someone in front of and behind us. Other than the extreme emptiness of the plane and the need to keep a mask on, the flight was normal. Plenty of food and entertainment provided, with no seeming disruption in service.

Chicago customs & immigration was emptier than I’ve ever seen it. We were processed quickly, even though I kept waiting for someone to stop me and say: “What are you doing? Why are you traveling right now? Go home.” The only time someone asked me where I’d be staying was back in Edinburgh, and there was no follow-up. After months and months of staying in one place, it felt like I was breaking the law. But no: green card holders are allowed to travel to the USA right now, so no one stopped me. My certainty that I’d be stopped and turned away at some point was just paranoia.

I passed thirteen wonderful days with my co-author Ash & family, staying mostly in although it wasn’t lawfully required. If I’d been staying in Chicago, I believe I would have had to quarantine. (Sidenote: the mayor of Chicago & governor of Illinois seem great & like they’re doing whatever they can to help their people.) Despite my conviction that every tickle in my throat was covid, no actual symptoms emerged. I charged up on the presence of loved ones and kitty snuggles, but my journey wasn’t over. My parents drove up from Florida to pick me up and whisked me away to Wisconsin to stay with my brother’s family. More loved ones! More long-delayed hugs! It felt SO GOOD. Between the extremely welcome presence of close family and Trump’s defeat—a thing I hadn’t taken for granted; I know white America’s capacity for willful ignorance—I was a happy and totally overemotional camper. When it came time for my parents to take me to the airport, I was a mess… but I was a grateful mess.

Board showing the few international flights leaving O'Hare.
A whopping eight flights leaving Chicago O’Hare’s international terminal after seven o’clock. Three of them are to Guadalajara.

It was quiet in the international terminal, though I don’t know how many of the places were closed due to the time (after 6pm) and how many were closed due to the lack of international passengers. The Chicago-London flight was even emptier than the flight I’d taken to the USA, probably due to the fact that England had gone into lockdown. I also had to fill in a passenger locator form. You can do this 48 hours in advance, but you can also do this after landing in the UK as long as you have your smartphone on you. They have QR codes and space for filling the form out before Immigration. That was all well done, but I was surprised when my flight to Edinburgh was as full as any pre-pandemic flight. It’s the closest I’ve sat to a stranger in ages, and even with masks on both sides it makes you antsy. Hopefully none of us were vectors for a deadly disease, but I suppose we’ll find out in time.

I’ll be quarantining with Shady for the next two weeks. That was always our plan, but now it’s actually required. I was pleased when I returned and received an email from the Public Health Scotland Test & Protect team. It told me:

The Home Office has shared your contact details with Public Health Scotland, in accordance with an agreement between both organisations. This information will be used by the National Contact Tracing Centre to contact a random sample of all those required to stay in their specified premises upon arrival.

So I may get contacted—who knows—and I’m happy this is happening, especially after that full last flight. Hopefully all will be well, and I won’t contribute in any way to an already too-high number. Let’s hope. I double-masked during all my travel, with a disposable mask under my cloth one. I replaced the disposable one roughly every four hours according to guidelines. Will it have made the difference? No idea.

Oh, and for the record: it’s easy to sleep in a mask, and not as hard as you’d think to wear one for hours on end provided you’re not exerting yourself. Something about the coverage actually made me feel better about sleeping in public spaces. The only trouble I had was when I sweated in one while running for that flight I nearly missed. Exercise in a double-mask setup is that little bit more difficult, not to mention kind of disgusting. Essential workers who actually have to do things while masked-up have my admiration and gratitude—and they definitely deserve a raise and better protection. Let’s help make that happen next time we get to vote on our leaders in the UK, please. And yes, I now realise I’m rambling… so I should probably end this post.

I’m happy to answer any questions if you have them. Hope this has been helpful, or at least curiosity-satisfying, to someone out there!

Mission Improbable: from idea to first draft

Hello again world! I promise not to angry vent this time, despite the deep everything-ness of everything. That way lies madness. This way? Just a simple blogpost about writing, attempting to demystify the process.

Last month I was talking to Cathi (Celtic Duchess) on Twitter, and she asked me how I start in on writing a book—whether I outline or just hit the ground running. I’ve wanted to go into my process for a bit just because a lot of starting writers I talk to seem intimidated by the steps, so Cathi gave me a great excuse to get on that. (One might say… a great excuse to write it down? 😉) Here goes nothing!

A good first draft is like this triumphant, oddly shaped carrot: technically complete, but it needs more time to reach its full potential.

I think most people have some loose ideas that, when put together, might make for a decent book. I talked about where ideas come from in a March episode of The Beans, and the main thrust was this: ideas are cheap. It’s putting time and effort into them that makes them worthwhile and transforms them into stories. When I look at my body of work, I don’t think the ideas I chose to spend time on are super unique or interesting. They just reflect thoughts and feelings I was having at one point in time—things I liked and things I didn’t like and things I wanted to address. Images that just happened, that I grabbed onto as worthwhile. For our study of ‘idea to draft’ I’ll use an old story I’ll probably never rewrite to discuss particulars. The story was called ‘Trespass’ and I wrote 50,000+ words of it in 2011 for NaNoWriMo then stuck it in a drawer. Without further ado: the process.

1) Inception

The first step is just having an idea, and then turning it into a bigger idea. The story I’m using as a case study here came about from listening to ‘Close to Me’ by the Cure on repeat. The line “if only I was sure that my head on the door was a dream” made me imagine someone in a half-dream state leaning against a door. (I know. This is… really very basic. I told you I was demystifying stuff.)

The image unfolded in my head. The person is confused (why are they there?) and barefoot. They’ve sleepwalked somewhere—where?

It becomes something of a fill-in-the-blank exercise. Maybe thanks to Robert Smith, I imagine the person is a man. The setting fills itself in as fantasy because that’s what I wrote at the time. Through the door is a library, and inside that library is a fellow student doing a spell (this story is now set at mage school, keep up…) for peace and tranquility. The main character wandered there in his sleep out of a need for peace/comfort/presence of mind because…

…because he is doing a multi-day spell/ritual that puts his sanity at risk. What’s that dangerous, sanity-challenging spell? I continue filling in the blanks according to my preferences and whims:

The dangerous spell is a ritual to resurrect someone. Who? Naturally: his dead twin brother, who wasn’t a mage and died in a hunting accident. The spell will pull his brother’s soul into his own body so he can talk to him again.

WOMP! There’s the snowball rolling downhill. You start with a song lyric, or a thought, or an anything, and you let it sit in your head. Images form. Maybe you start from the other end, and think “I want to write a story about a haunted castle in Scotland”. It’s a different start point, but the same principle. You fill in the blanks until stuff starts falling into place in a way you like. Anyway: now I have a story about a young man resurrecting his prematurely deceased brother. At a glance, it will involve:

  • a focus on platonic love
  • ghosts / soul magic
  • a plot that somehow interacts with the main character’s predicament – ie, a plot where a body housing two souls will be important

2) Planning/outlining

Back in the day I probably would have just started writing and hoped the answers would come to me. I did everything by feel, although I realize now that the framework was my intrinsic understanding of storytelling. I’m pretty sure everyone who likes and engages with fiction has this sense, but relying on that alone was slow and got me stuck a lot. I still write slowly and get stuck a lot, but I know better how to un-stick myself and push through. Un-sticking includes going back to this planning/outlining phase occasionally.

So: I’ve had an idea. I want to write it out. First I might sit down with a notebook and have a brainstorming session on characters and plot, answering several questions:

    • what’s the MC’s backstory?
    • who are the other important characters? (brother, mentor, maybe a love interest or rival?)
    • what will the general thrust of the story be?

You might notice the third bullet-point is an impossibly broad question, but I can narrow it down for myself. What do I want for this story? I know I don’t want the MC or his brother to be villains. I want the resurrection to ‘work’, and to play with what it means to have two souls inhabiting a body. I want banter and a shared goal for the main character and his brother. Because I’m not making the conflict about the resurrection itself, it needs to be adjacent: something related, where the MC’s predicament is relevant but not the whole story. This means other forces have to be at work. It’s easy to make this soul-related by having it pertain to other mages also doing resurrecty things, but being evil about it. I acquire my villain: some nebulous group of mages is using soul magic to [DO SOMETHING EVIL] and the main character must find out what/why/how they are doing it. In the process, he will learn [SOMETHING ELSE]. He will have to face what he is doing and possibly give up on resurrecting his brother fully to stop [EVIL THING].

I would then take a stab at outlining. At the very least I’d put my broad idea here into an outline format. The book ‘Save the Cat Writes a Novel’ by Jessica Brody has a fantastic guide on story arcs, and I might reference that. My writing partner Ash helpfully excised the information as a fill-in-the-blank worksheet for us to use. The most useful part for me is asking the following questions:

  • What is your MC’s problem, or a flaw of theirs that needs fixing?
  • What does your character want/what goal are they pursuing?
  • What does your character actually need? (What lesson will they learn in the end, through exposure to the story?)

I also write down some cookies. Cookies are scenes and concepts that make you want to write. In the case of my mage story, I loved the thought of the nerdy mage brother being judged by his more active, athletic twin for not looking after his body. The twin brother making the MC exercise would be a cookie for me.

So there’s my messy process. Inevitably, I will fill in half an outline, get enough of an idea for the story’s broad strokes to get going, and then… get going. I’ll pull out the outline and add to it when I’m stuck, but that’s it.

3) Writing

This is the part of the process that’s just like exercise or cleaning the toilet or washing your hair. Hopefully it’s more fun than that, but by and large you just do it. My mage story started with my main character walking through the door set down by Robert Smith and being confronted by the other student doing the spell that made him sleep-walk there. They had a confrontational conversation where little bits of the set-up were explored. Every scene you ask “where am I going next?” and then go there. It can be really fun and really arduous, sometimes at the same time.

4) Losing your way and then finding it again

Writing tens of thousands of words isn’t easy, at least not if the words are meant to make sense in order. Looking at how far you have to go before a draft is done can feel incredibly overwhelming. I’ve been trying to think of analogies for non-writers, and the following is a stupid analogy but it was the best I could think of. Here goes: the losing-your-way part of writing a book is like living in a world where worn-down shoes are a valuable asset you can sell, and you look down at your almost-new shoes (an investment) and think of how much more you’re going to have to walk in them to wear them down properly, and you have a moment of doubt. The shoes are no longer new to you so you know all the places they rub, and maybe they don’t look as good away from the shop as you thought they would, and will anyone really want to buy these shoes at the end, when you’re finally done with them?

The analogy is really, really stupid. I should stick to fiction. But anyway: it’s hard. I sometimes think it gets easier with each book, but it remains hard. It might be easier if you pick a format and stick to it, but I haven’t done that and so I continue to punish myself. When I lose my way, I first ask myself if there’s a problem in the plot or tone or character interactions that I need to fix. Often there is. If there’s not, I remind myself of a few things:

  • my specific cookies for the project
  • that I’m tired of the book because I’m spending so much time on it every day, not because it’s a steaming pile of shit
  • if I keep going the book will eventually be finished and I may learn to like it again
  • there are solutions to plot problems and saggy pacing bits that I won’t be able to see until I’ve finished the draft and gotten some distance from it; nothing is unfixable

If none of this works, I may set the draft aside for a bit and focus on other things. If it does work—great! Back to step 3. Eventually step 4 stops kicking you back to step 3 and you make it to 5.

5) Bathe in the sweet glory of finishing a first draft

There’s really no rule for how to celebrate this sort of thing, but I think it helps to have a treat planned. Conspire with your loved ones to make this a special moment for you, or conspire with yourself to open a bottle of prosecco and watch something you love. Just make it nice for yourself so you don’t fall into a deep depression of “what now?”

And that’s it! There really is no magic formula. It’s just staying in touch with yourself and your process, making the time, and keeping going. A first draft isn’t the finish line, but it means you have something to work with. If I’ve made all of this sound super unmagical, devoid of muses and all the things that make creators seem fancy, I’m very sorry! There are lots of special moments, but you can’t plan them in. You just make space for them and hope they come. I hope this is helpful or at least interesting to someone out there… and happy writing!

Noise on busy streets

A while ago I was doing research on online movements and my friend Elaine (wonderful writer & person) described posting on social media as shouting things on a busy high street. There might be a sense that you’re talking to like-minded people, but a passerby could hear and take issue. Maybe the street will suddenly fall silent and the whole city will hear you. You never know which of the things you shout will be taken out of context, and it could be anything. AKA: proceed with extreme caution.

That description is true (way too true) for people with small followings, but famous people know they’ll be heard. Every time they tweet, they know thousands of people will read what they have to say. When JK Rowling took issue with the phrase “people who menstruate” earlier this year and rolled like a stone downhill into transphobic territory most of us already knew to be her stomping grounds, I—like many of my friends—muted her and attempted to divorce the famous person from the franchise that brought so much joy. This post is not about JK Rowling so much as the noise around her. Plenty of others have spent their time dissecting her arguments and knee-jerk defensiveness over deeply discriminatory views. I liked the brevity of Daniel Radcliffe’s response, but tried not to focus on the social media cycle. As far as you can banish a famous person with huge influence from your own head, I’ve banished JK Rowling.

Apparently today is her birthday. Apparently it was necessary for a Scottish author/broadcaster/journalist many good people follow to tweet her support for JK Rowling, calling her one of the most caring and generous people out there. This author with 39.9k followers noted she’ll probably become the target of a twitter mob (“Yes, I know what happens next in my mentions. I don’t care,”). And I wonder… what’s the point?

Twitter: the public forum. The busy street. This person wants everyone to know (perhaps especially the people who have accused her friend of callousness!) that actually, her friend is all these positive adjectives. Such a brave show of support! Such kindness! I’m glad billionaire JK Rowling has been publicly wished a happy birthday as opposed to… oh, I don’t know. Getting a phone call. Being privately congratulated in a way that doesn’t tell thousands of trans people that the way they were hurt doesn’t matter—that in fact, the person inciting abuse against them is principled, generous, etc etc.

I’m so tired of the noise. Our world is so glaringly unequal, and what do most people do once they acquire an unfair share of it? They form ranks. They punch down. Over and over. I know power tends to corrupt—there are so many sayings about it, not to mention the entire superhero genre—but do we have to watch it happen? These famous people decry being ‘cancelled’, but the irony of the situation is that JK Rowling can’t be cancelled. She has too much influence; she keeps getting renewed. The seasons of “JK Rowling and cronies continue to incite abuse against people I care about then act the victim” surpass even Supernatural‘s endless run.

I want to change the channel, but more than that I want a time machine. I want to meet today’s rich and famous—the self-made, at least—before their break and ask them: what would you do? What would you accomplish with money and power? Do you lift people up, or tear them down? Do you help people with beginnings like yours, or fear them? Would you even dream of using your influence the way your future self uses it?

And then I’ll go back into my time machine and turn the dial all the way to the Jurassic period. Breathe some fresh air at last. Probably get eaten by a dinosaur. And as that hypothetical dinosaur tears my steaming guts from my still-living body, thrashing its head left and right to cut through my intestines, you know what? That dinosaur will still be less of an asshole than the average celebrity.

So thank you, hypothetical dinosaur. You are a beautiful departure from the overall online landscape, and I appreciate you. Thanks for keeping it real.

Falling into our verjaardagskalender

Shady and I had an adventure with some very good friends from the Netherlands towards the end of 2019. We visited Dumbarton Castle and Auchentoshan Distillery, and at dinner they gave us a ‘verjaardagskalender’—a birthday calendar. They laughingly explained the rather Dutch gift to my American husband:

“You write the birthdays of all your friends in and hang it in the guest toilet, and whenever people go to the toilet at your house they sit on the pot and check to see if they made it into your calendar. So when we visit your house we’ll check if our birthdays are there.”

Shady hung up the calendar as instructed, and he fills out each month as we get to it. May’s picture is of a place I’ve never been: a terrace in Museumdorp Orvelte, in the province of Drenthe.

Loved ones with May birthdays: our apologies, we haven’t gotten round to filling May out.

The thing is, I have been there. Not that specific location, but that sunny afternoon. The cobbled terrace outside a beautiful old building, the bicycles going by, the sound of women gossiping in fluent Dutch. It makes me homesick for a place I haven’t lived in over a decade. Self-isolation makes me long for places less than three miles away—let me walk down a busy street in town! let me sit in a bustling café!—but the curious mix of nostalgia and longing I get when I look at that picture hits like a freight train.

It’s no surprise. The ongoing isolation heightens emotions I’d know how to handle at other times. The whole thing feels like being a teenager again, with that sense that something is fighting to the surface of you and your body isn’t big enough to hold it. Just like back then, it has nowhere to go; there’s just a morass of uncertainty. What will the future hold? It can’t be predicted—not because you don’t know the world, this time, but because the world is changing too drastically for your past experiences to help you.

As if being a teenager once wasn’t enough!

I’m continuing to reach out to people, and my daily life isn’t that different from before. My musician dad does wonderful livestreams on Facebook every Sunday. My grandad sings “we’ll meet again” in the background of my phone calls with granny. I’m grateful for all the ways this isn’t affecting me—but sometimes I sit on the toilet for longer than I need to, and fall into a picture of a sunny terrace in the Netherlands.

Pre-Eurovision last year, on my friend’s back porch in Leiden. We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when…

Writing Solo

I’ve wanted to do a blogpost about how Ash and I collaborate for ages. HOWEVER, we sent in the latest draft of our book last month, and it’s left us at loose ends. We’ve worked a little on our book 2 outline, but neither of us want to get really stuck into anything big while we wait for edits. As a result, for the first time in a while, I’m writing a new project (a short story) solo.

Unlike the triumphant song I just linked you mainly because it has the word ‘solo’ in it and I like it, going solo for me has been hard. Did you know that when you write alone, you have to write everything yourself? Did you know you have to ask other people for help when you need it, rather than having the help supplied without your asking? Did you know I’ve forgotten how to do all that?

There we were, happily doing stuff together…
And then, there we weren’t!

Sometimes when collaborating, it sucks. Bad moods happen, and sometimes you get tired of having to communicate well. Both of us are needy for praise from the other, and when there’s no immediate positive response, feelings get hurt. That’s basically the worst part, and I say that as a person who used to HATE group projects.

So read that again: sometimes, in the process of writing hundreds of thousands of words together, Ash and I hurt each other’s feelings without meaning to. In terms of crosses to bear? That is a feather-light cross made of soft, foamy material.

Contrast with the positives. They’re too numerous to count. Built-in discussion partner who is exactly as invested as I am: check. We can joke and laugh about the characters, come up with silly scenarios (that sometimes make it into the book), and whenever one of us feels insecure, there’s a person who can provide immediate reassurance. No, the scene you just wrote doesn’t suck. Here are all the things I liked about it! Yes, this concern you have is valid… I have some ideas on how to fix it.

Do I sound nostalgic? I’m nostalgic. The short story I’m writing is cute, with swashbuckling and magic talents, but motivating myself is hard. I’m no longer used to building momentum alone. I get so tired of my own writing voice, and how often my characters fall into introspection I have to delete later.  I can do it—it’s just less fun. Even with Ash reading it and encouraging me, it’s not the same.

I’ll get the A to my V back one day…*

I don’t want to lose the ability to write alone. That’s how most people write, and it’s good exercise for my brain. At least some of my reluctance is laziness. It’s hard being alone with your thoughts and wrestling with yourself without someone there to help—but it’s important too. To an extent.

To all you writers doing this solo: I have more respect for you than ever. Well done! To my future self NOT doing stuff solo: you lucky dog. Send me some of your energy; I need it.

* They haven’t gone anywhere I’m just being dramatic.

Grief for the past, hope for the future

Today is a bad day.

Lots of days are bad days. If I measured my moods by my grief and panic over political events—not to mention ecological ones—I don’t think I’d have a good day in my life. Constant sadness isn’t an option, but on the day the UK formally leaves the EU I think I can allow myself to feel it. I am what smug twitter commenters with the overall demeanour of Nelson from the Simpsons call a Remoaner. They tell us to face facts: we lost. The people voted. Men without compassion or integrity won—and now I have to see their glowing, victorious faces everywhere.

I’m not sure how I’d feel about Brexit if its proponents were less smug. If I felt this vote represented some true desire Brits had for a better, more unified country, maybe it would be easier to take—but I suspect it wouldn’t. It’s too personal. My childhood was a bona fide manifestation of the European dream. In this dream, my Scottish parents moved to the Netherlands, learned the language while having my brother and me, and I grew up with two home countries instead of one. It was an enormous privilege. The fact that my passport said ‘United Kingdom’ didn’t matter. UK meant EU. Maybe I was odd, not-quite-Dutch and not-quite-Scottish, but it’s an oddness that enriched my life rather than detracting from it. Sometimes I’m jealous of people with deep roots in one single place, who can answer “where’s home?” without stumbling through the answer, but that doesn’t mean I’d change anything. My odd upbringing, as well as the seven years in the USA after, mean no one can tell where I’m from by my accent—but I know where I’ve been. I’m grateful for the opportunities my family and I were given.

I want others to have them too.

Fast-forward through my years in America. I moved to Dundee in late 2014: not in time for Scotland’s vote on Independence, but in plenty of time to vote Remain in the EU referendum. Boris Johnson is selective in choosing when Scotland’s votes matter. They matter when Scottish people vote to stay in the UK—under threat that leaving the UK will force them out of the EU—but they don’t matter when Scottish people vote overwhelmingly to stay in the EU. It’s almost like he doesn’t give a shit about Scotland.

(Spoiler alert: he doesn’t give a shit about Scotland.)

In the interest of full disclosure—despite what my pro-Indie family might think of me for admitting this!—I wasn’t convinced on Independence when I moved to Scotland. Some part of me was glad I didn’t get a vote. I didn’t know the situation, and sentimental feelings inspired by folk songs and tragic stories of oppression don’t add up to a functioning government. Now I’ve lived here, and it’s a different story. I’ve seen clearly how the Scottish government shields us, at least in part, from England’s endless appetite for privatisation. The people in charge of England want their country to be just like America, where the environment and poor people’s lives come second to companies turning a profit. Makes sense for Tory politicians; they’re rich. They’ll never have to live in places like Grenfell Tower, and they don’t have to face the negative consequences of their policies. They don’t even have to face the consequences of lying to voters. It’s harrowing, and my heart hurts for all the people in England anticipating more of the same austerity that has already claimed too many lives—but I believe better is possible for Scotland. I see the work the people around me are doing, whether they were born here or simply adopted the country as their own. They’re working to get better pay for teachers, or to protect the environment, or to shine light on the horrific imprisonment of immigrants at Dungavel. I see them caring deeply about their communities and the public good. These are the people who deserve to inherit the Earth, not slogan-slinging hypocrites who confuse politeness with morality.

Regardless, I’m getting off track. This was meant to be about the EU, and it’s becoming about Scottish Independence. The thing is, I trust Brussels over Westminster when it comes to human rights. I even trust Brussels over Westminster when it comes to caring about Scotland. You’d have to walk around Scotland with blinders on not to see all the roads, parks, and organisations that have been supported by the EU. The fact that some EU rules don’t have their intended effect and ought to be reconsidered is par for the course; that’s how governments work. It’s an EU rule that stopped businesses from dumping their waste into our waterways. I’m sure that was extremely inconvenient at the time, but is anyone going to argue we’d be better off with polluted rivers?

Never mind—I’m sure someone would argue that. Letting businesses pollute your country is great for economic growth, after all.

I’m disappointed. I grieve for a thing I thought I couldn’t lose. Growing up I thought progress was inevitable, that society would always improve on itself until we built a world so great it was boring. I thought that when we saw injustice, we’d fix it—not capitalise on it. How ignorant was I?

Instead the reality is this, and I suspect many people born with less privilege knew it all along: movement towards a more equal society is driven by good people fighting for their rights and the rights of others. Women weren’t given the vote. African Americans weren’t given freedom. Not much is changing on this day—not in any physical sense—but something good is slipping further from our grasp. The EU’s founding values are human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. Things worth fighting for, and things worth holding the European Union accountable for when it falls short. I don’t want to leave. A majority of Scotland’s people don’t want to leave.

I don’t intend to go quietly. My friends and I will organise and whinge and protest. ‘Remoaner’ is right. Screw every disingenuous, rich prick who pushed us into this mess. They deserve to live the lives they consign others to.

Happy Friday. Don’t let the bastards grind you down.