Whew, it’s been a busy month! Concert, trip to NYC, my birthday, and a flurry of writing. Here’s a small update with the highlights:
Portugal the Man
‘Portugal. The Man’ has become one of my absolute favorite bands over the past few years. I discovered them when looking for songs to fit my project code named: Shotgun Girl, and fell instantly in love. Several of their songs were absolutely instrumental in shaping the Shotgun Girl plot (as you can tell from the playlist). They are actually the only band I’ve turned Chris on to, instead of the other way around.
When they came to Nashville, only a two hour drive away from us, I knew Chris and I had to go.
We ended up with tickets to the pit, which was my first time ever being so close. I had some concerns about the standing or the noise, especially after I forgot my earplugs, but there was absolutely no problem.
You know, I really didn’t get music when I was younger. I found it distracting when I was trying to focus on other things, and it had the ability to affect my moods strongly, which gave me a sense of lack of both helplessness and hopelessness. I never used to understand why people would want to go to a concert or stand there with speakers blasting away at them. However, the older I get the more I find there’s music out there I actually enjoy. It was incredible to stand right there in front of the speakers, looking directly at the creators of the music I love, as they gave an amazing performance. No mood modification, no sense of being out of control. I liked it.
A few months ago my great-uncle passed away after an absolutely amazing life of 90+ years. He survived World War II, was married to the love of his life for almost 70 years, and left behind a big, happy family that adored him and his buoyant spirit and sense of humor. The memorial and funeral were set for the same weekend after the Portugal concert, so I ended up staying the night in Nashville and flying out to NYC the next morning.
My littlest sister and I shared a hotel in Times Square the first night before spending the rest of the time with family. She’d been begging me for a New York trip ever since our other sister and I went to NY in 2011. Because of the short time period we focused on just being in the city and people-watching, but we did get up to some cool stuff.
Andrea Scher is one of my absolute favorite bloggers, and I’ve been following her for over ten years now. I love her little updates and insights in my inbox, and this thought she had recently really struck me, and has been lingering ever since.
We offer the medicine we most need.
I have this theory.
The more I grow my emotional intelligence the more I notice that people’s traumas come out through what they’re passionate about. We spend time trying to right the wrongs that were done to us, even if they’re not the same wrongs. We try to add to the world what we were lacking at one point in time. We call out to others to see if there’s anyone like us out there, because it’s the nature of humanity to heal through connection.
It’s made me very conscious of what I try to give and grow externally, and what that says about what I need, and how I’m communicating those needs to others. It’s made me recognize why I feel the need to add a little bit of wisdom, especially about writing, to my blog, because for so long I muddled blind through both myself and my work.
My father told me a story once, about a man who was rescued after nearly starving to death after shipwrecking on an abandoned island. Even once he returned to civilization and got his old life back, even though he lived in middle class America and there was a wealth of food available around him, he was always hungry. He would go to all-you-can-eat restaurants and eat and eat and eat, then throw up in the bathroom, and eat and eat some more.
Even though his body was sated, he was still starving.
Let me give you another example. Chris and I watch a lot of reality documentaries in the background while we work or play computer games, and some of our favorites are Hoarders, My Strange Addiction, and Intervention. Over time we noticed a pattern… every single person suffering from mental illness or addiction had a huge trauma in their lives. Their compulsions or addictions were the best way they knew to cope with the pain that had brought them to their knees.
Maybe that’s not a surprise to you. But in a society where we blame people for their mental illnesses, and act like addiction is a bad choice that can be easily undone, it might come as a surprise to some. For hoarders the hurt tended to be abandonment or a sudden fall into poverty. For strange addicts the causes really varied, but the additions were inevitably some sort of method of coping with stress. For hard drug addicts, sexual abuse features in 90% of their shared back stories.
We treat addiction like a crime instead of an illness, and a cause of problems instead of a side effect. But one thing I read from a drug-crimes law activist, is that the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety.
Addicts aren’t addicts because they can’t stay sober. They’re addicts because the addiction is a side effect to the pain. And we exorcise pain through connection.
Taking that down from the very intense level we’ve just gone to, I think that all pain at every level requires connection to heal it. And then it goes back to what Andrea said: we offer the medicine we most need.
We hold our hands out and give what we would have loved to be given, because the act of someone taking it creates that connection we need. Therefore, you can tell what someone needs by what they’re offering. What they’re trying to connect with you about.
I’m still trying to vocalize what I need out of this blog. I suppose it’s what I always needed, what I was always searching for in school and couldn’t find, what I loved about reading author’s notes in the backs of books, and what I loved about being part of Let The Words Flow:
I didn’t want to let the month slip by without giving an update. I have several half-article drafts on my usual mix of writing revelations and life journey stuff, but nothing quite ready to post today.
Nameless is going quite well, better than it has in years. I’m adding and deleting a lot in an effort to figure out the nebulous middle, so the ms is only net positive around 3k words. Still, those words represent hours of brainstorming, list-making, and exploratory drafting. I consider them a success.
B-Day finally came and I got my top braces installed:
They were just as painful as everyone warned and my brain had conveniently forgotten. I couldn’t even bite through a cheese stick!
Your Writing Should Not Be Your Main Source of Validation For Who You Are as a Person – Kristin Nelson
I think this can be the most debilitating mistakes an aspiring writer can make. There be dragons if you start down this mental path.
But here is the reason you need to start thinking like an agent and less like a writer when it comes to submitting your material. If someone passes on your work, that rejection is not a commentary on your qualities as a human being. In a lot of instances, it’s not even a commentary on your ability or talent as a writer!
No matter what an industry person’s response is to your written work, your writing is only one facet of who you are as a human being. Don’t make it everything, or you may lose your joy of writing and find the whole business very depressing indeed.
Ms. Nelson’s article is inspiring and reassuring, but I have a different perspective on her ultimate conclusion. Writing absolutely defines who I am–but my writing career does not, and the difference is an important one.
I used to define myself by my ‘career.’ Ever since I decided in fourth grade I was going to be a writer (abandoning dreams of ‘flying’ as an astronaut), I judged myself by my talents. For many years I was thankfully blind to my faults due to the attention I received from friends and English teachers. I say ‘thankfully’ because if I knew how bad I truly was I might not have written so much or dared to dream so big. And in high school it was fairly easy to shine–I even had an article published in TeenInk which bolstered my cockiness significantly, not to mention the medium-sized but sincere following at Fictionpress for Nameless.
Although it hurt my ego not to have a novel published while still a teenager, like my imaginary rival Christopher Paolini, I did sign with my agent at age 19 and that was a comfort. But even as my understanding of my weaknesses increased, so did my expectation that my worth was defined by my ‘success.’ And for the first year of having an agent, that was good enough. But selling a book just sort of… kept… not… happening. Around me, friends and colleagues were signing deals left and right. But it didn’t happen for me.
I’m on the far side of my twenties now. Still a baby, to most! But my perspective is a lot different than when I was on the other side. At the time, it seemed like there was no tomorrow. If I didn’t catch the debut circles of 2009… 2010… 2011…2012… Then I’d miss the boat entirely. No writing career. No success. Thanks for playing, goodbye.
Maybe it’s because I truly joined the industry in those years, and thought the writer circles I was aware of would be permanent and unchanging, that the big names of 2010 would be the big names for all time. That the incredible frenzy of debuting would always surround the new writers I’d come to know and admire.
But it doesn’t.
And slowly, my awareness expanded to realize that despite how it felt, writing isn’t a race. It’s a marathon. And you’re not really competing against anyone but yourself. Sure, you can see the other runners’ times if you want to, but the only marker for success is the one you place for yourself. Look, I’m 6’2. I weigh 200+ pounds. I’ll never be able to sprint along at an eight minute mile for miles at a time. But when I ran a single (12+ minute) mile without stopping for the first time in my life I was as proud as if I’d completed a full 26-mile marathon. For me, for my journey, that was a win.
Writing is the same. As Maggie Stiefvater put it, it’s not Maggie versus other writers, it’s Maggie versus Maggie. I’m not trying to keep up with anyone else anymore, I’m simply trying to do the best I can in comparison to myself. The market–that’s out of my control. You know what isn’t?
Writing. I can’t stop telling myself stories. I can’t stop imagining new situations, characters, heartbreaks, exchanges. It’s part of who I am. I don’t have a book deal, but that hasn’t stopped me from working on the novels clamoring to break out of me. I would keep writing books my whole life even if I never sold one, because that’s me.
And I think it’s okay to define myself like that. I’m a writer. I’m not an author–yet–but you know what? That word never really did it for me. Writing is exciting. It’s a personal journey with a magnificent destination at the end. It’s a way to share the things that grow inside my mind–A truly bizarre concept, by the way. Why on earth do I feel the need to express these made up scenarios just to describe a fabricated sense of emotion I’ve never felt in real life but want to synthesize because it’s fun? No idea. But having the kind of mind that creates those abstract things, and honing my skills so I can better express them–that’s an irrevocable part of who I am.
As I learned more about yoga and meditation last year I realized that writing is my spiritual practice. It’s expression and self-improvement rolled into one. It is the art that compels me to improve myself in all aspects, and to pursue wisdom about life and being human.
Writing is the garden I work in. Bearing fruit will be satisfying, but that’s only a few minutes of sweetness. Do you think any reasonable person would put in all those months of labor just to eat a single, consumable piece of fruit at the end? No, they’d trot down to the store and buy it instead. But I’m not laboring for the moment of fruition. Not really. I’m doing it for the work itself, for the deep satisfaction of growing something, especially because sometimes that something is me.
And yes, part of my spiritual practice is to keep my eyes on my own paper and focus on writing the best book I can, and to not worry about the rest of it.
I had a very interesting writing experience with Nameless the other day that I’d like to both record and explore with this blog post.
Side note: Yes, Nameless!!! I’ve turned in edits on The Cobworld and launched immediately into continuing with the new draft on Nameless, which I’d last delved into this past July. This summer I added around 4k words, and I’ve added an additional 7.5k this month, so the total manuscript is now around 65k. Only 35k more to go (and hopefully less)!
Nameless is slowly dressing its bones with flesh. I could say that in a less gross way but I refuse to.
A few nights ago I wrote a scene I’ve been looking forward to for a long time. It’s an action sequence involving a lot of people in a large area, and a pivotal moment in the book. I’d been picturing it, and telling myself the story of how it would feel to read, but hadn’t given much thought to the actual words. (In hindsight that’s a warning from my subconscious: if I’m thinking in pictures instead of words, either the scene isn’t ready, or I need to do some hard work to figure out the facts.)
And so, I wrote a thousand words describing what happened. Lots of movement, large groups of people, very little dialogue. It was more describing a flow of movement and crowd reactions versus what was going on with individual characters. I meant it to be sweeping, to have momentum.
I did a thing I’ve done lots of times over the years: I rush past details in an effort to trick the reader. I use long sentences, and gloss over descriptions. It feels like performing on a burning stage, dancing and singing as fast and as loud as I can to distract the audience from the catastrophe that’s really going on.
The writing isn’t technically bad. The sentences are formed correctly. Nothing is purple or over-the-top. But if I had to re-read it I would cringe because I know it’s the equivalent of being super loud and outgoing at a party because you’re afraid no one will like you.
And for years, I’d let this bad writing stay. It technically accomplishes its purpose, and it allows me to move on and finish the book, but eventually some brilliant person will come along behind me and say, “This isn’t working.” Then I’ll have to go figure out what it is I hate about this scene so much and why I’m struggling so hard.
And I finally figured out the universal truth of why.
One of the pieces of writing advice I try to follow is: When in doubt, go slower, not faster. This has helped snap me out of the above scenario in the past, but only sometimes. I recognized that I felt better about the writing when I slowed down and examined the character’s thoughts and actions, but it wasn’t quite the universal truth I needed.
Then recently I read The Anatomy of Curiosity by Maggie Stiefvater, Tessa Gratton, and Brenna Yovanoff. The book contains one short story by each author, with notes detailing their writing process and explanations for the choices they made in the writing process.
Something Maggie Stiefvater (whom I adore) said really stuck with me. It’s something to the effect of, “If I could be the fairy godmother to all new writers, I would whisper in their ears, ‘Be specific!'”
It is specificity that makes good writing. Anyone can describe a person. A good writer will point out the specific things about them that make them interesting. Anyone can write a scene like I did, wide and detached and from 20,000 feet. It is the up-close, micro-view that compels.
This ties in with another lesson I learned over the course of editing The Cobworld: I don’t have a problem with killing my darlings. I have a problem with deleting bad or mediocre scenes because I’m afraid I can’t replace them with something better.
Specificity and Courage: my two antidotes to that terrible, squicky feeling of trying really hard to disguise bad writing.
So when that revelation barreled into me at a thousand miles per hour, I realized how to fix my bad scene. It’s not as simple as going slower and not faster. It’s about showing the reader how significant that scene really is, by getting very specific with the emotions and actions of the characters living it
And the ridiculous part is, I didn’t even consider how all this action was affecting my point of view character. I was so preoccupied with explaining the vast movement I didn’t think about all the super exciting things I could say about how it felt. Because there are exciting things to say.
I can’t wait to write them down.
I’ve decided to save Fave Five posts for months when I have nothing new to report. If you see one it means I’m still writing, but don’t have any exciting revelations or personal news to share. I mean, this was a big moment for me recently:
This is the best book about writing since Stephen King’s ON WRITING.
You guys know I don’t post book reviews that often. Something has to really blow me away to be worth blogging about, but when I was reading BIG MAGIC I wanted to contact every single person I knew and make them read this book.
It’s not actually about writing per se, but as a writer of course every nugget Elizabeth shared I directly related to my writing life. BIG MAGIC is a non-fiction sort of self-help book about creativity — how to find it, get it, keep it, and drastically improve your happiness.
I wanted to pull a quote off of practically every page. Eventually I couldn’t stand it anymore and got my notebook out and started actually doing so.
Some of the best quotes and takeaways:
The insistence that art does not have to mean suffering, and in fact the suffering artist is probably not creating to their full potential, let alone living a fulfilling life.
An AMAZING anecdote about how a novel premise she abandoned jumped into the head of a friend that will have you believing in true magic.
The radical notion that the creative spirit is not within you, but a separate entity, one you can address and court and form a partnership with. The idea that you have to show your work you want it, not just hope it wants you. It’s a little hokey but I’ve been using the concept for Cobworld edits and wow — things are clipping along MUCH faster than usual.
“You can measure your worth by your dedication to your path, not by your successes or failures. You can battle your demons (through therapy, recovery, prayer, or humility) instead of battling your gifts — in part by realizing that your demons were never the ones doing the work, anyhow.”
I read this book a few months ago and my writing life has been much improved ever since. That kind of long-term improvement is pretty rare, right? Read this book. Results not guaranteed of course, but you’ll have a great time trying.
The past few months have been a whirlwind. My upper palate surgery recovery took way longer than I thought, so I apologize for the blog silence: catching up on work, school, writing, and the holidays pushed the blog into low priority.
But! It’s a new year, a new semester, and soon a new book! Here’s what’s been up, and what will be up:
A photo posted by savannahjfoley (@savannahjfoley) on
And here’s what it looked like two weeks later:
Fun with gap A photo posted by savannahjfoley (@savannahjfoley) on
Things have settled down but I won’t get top braces until March to start closing dat gap.
My next semester of school starts on Monday, so I have until Sunday night to finish up this edit of The Cobworld. After that it’s back to possibly drafting Nameless while I extensively plan for Shotgun Girl. With this book I want to challenge myself not only with third person, but in conforming to a more traditional plot arc with a five-act structure. Shotgun Girl is a trilogy (for now) and I want to rock both the plot structure and the writing.
Nameless is… Nameless. It burbles up in me and dies down again. Beyond that, nothing has really changed since my last update. You can always find the latest Nameless news on this page.
Working on edits for The Cobworld forced me to confront some of my bad writing habits, and led to this revelation:
I think the Lesson of this book is how to truly kill your darlings.
You guys, this is HUGE for me. For all my books, I would write these scenes and just dread re-reading them in the edits. Then I’d re-read them, and they’d be okay. You know that feeling? They’re okay to the point where they don’t really need to be changed, but you still cringe at the thought of them, and sometimes even skip over reading them entirely.
I’ve always read that one of the biggest causes of both procrastination and bad writing is fear. Fear that you’ll get it wrong, fear that you can’t handle it, fear that what you really need to do is beyond you. And I knew that, logically. But I didn’t really learn it until this book. I don’t have a ‘darlings’ problem. I have a problem with radically re-writing scenes where I’m not 100% sure what happens, or needs to happen. So I bluff through it, and the emotions are wrong but the writing’s correct, and it gets left in.
Man, October blew by, didn’t it? November’s going to be a fast one, too, particularly for me: I’m having upper palate surgery on 11/4 and will be recovering from home for up to 2 weeks, depending on swelling and bruising. Adult braces is intense stuff, you guys. Wear your retainer!
Here’s what tickled my fancy in October:
The new Lana del Rey album came out, and although I’m a huge Lana fan it took me a while to listen to it. I have this problem with new music by artists I love; I usually dislike the new stuff until I listen to it a few times, then I fall in love all over again. Chris recently got us a vinyl player, and I was playing the new album while cooking when I really heard this song for the first time, and I had to stop what I was doing and listen because it was so beautiful:
What an exciting month it’s been! I’m working on more edits for The Cobworld, and I wrote/published a new short story on Wattpad called The First Girl. In my personal life I launched a huge fantastic morale project at work, walked in the St. Jude’s 5k, and have been studying/doing homework like nobody’s business.
Very different from last month’s song (and also very NSFW so watch out!) A coworker pointed me towards this band and I fell in love immediately. More faves are Ugly Boys, and Baby’s On Fire. I definitely splurged and bought all three albums.
This quote comes from an interview GQ did with Stephen Colbert (I love GQ — I should really get a subscription since I buy it monthly…) where he discusses one of the great tragedies in his life–the death of his father and brother when he was only 10. The whole article is great, and the last part especially.
I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.
I asked him if he could help me understand that better, and he described a letter from Tolkien in response to a priest who had questioned whether Tolkien’s mythos was sufficiently doctrinaire, since it treated death not as a punishment for the sin of the fall but as a gift. “Tolkien says, in a letter back: ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” Colbert knocked his knuckles on the table. “ ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” he said again. His eyes were filled with tears. “So it would be ungrateful not to take everything with gratitude. It doesn’t mean you want it. I can hold both of those ideas in my head.”
He was 35, he said, before he could really feel the truth of that. He was walking down the street, and it “stopped me dead. I went, ‘Oh, I’m grateful. Oh, I feel terrible.’ I felt so guilty to be grateful. But I knew it was true.
“It’s not the same thing as wanting it to have happened,” he said. “But you can’t change everything about the world. You certainly can’t change things that have already happened.”
The whole article, especially the end, is fantastic. And it really hits home for me, this month especially as a friend came back into my life and helped me process some painful things that happened a few years ago. Although I couldn’t have understood or accepted it at the time, the painful things that happened so significantly changed my life for the better that now I’m grateful they happened. They challenged me to be a better person, and a better writer, and now I wouldn’t take it back.
Not only is this picture gorgeous, but it links to an amazing and in-depth review by an artist of their own artistic history and growth, which I found both humbling and inspiring.
This AMAZING graphic novel by Kelly Sue DeConnick gave me both goosebumps and tears. I’m not a huge graphic novel fan but this is one I can’t wait to own, and I’m DYING for the next volume! It’s a bloody, gritty western about Death, his dangerous daughter, and the band of renegades caught in the crossfire. It’s got everything I love: twisty history, dark secrets, lost love, and spine-tingling fight scenes. Cannot recommend highly enough.
“There was a girl before the one called Beauty. A first girl, equally good and beautiful, but they don’t tell stories about her. No one likes a story without a happy ending.”
Surprise! I wrote a short story called THE FIRST GIRL, and it’s up on Wattpad!
THE FIRST GIRL is a Beauty and the Beast Retelling about the first girl the prince ever loved. You guys know my projects usually stem from wondering why– Why a prince would remain locked and alone inside a castle? Where was his family? What was his life like before he met Beauty?
THE FIRST GIRL is my answer to those questions, in 4.5k of dark humor and heartbreaking romance. This story is very dear to my heart, and if you like retellings I know you’ll love it.
If you’re on Wattpad I’d appreciate if you could favorite the story and leave a review. I miss interacting and connecting with readers, and hope to get back to that through writing and sharing short stories. This first one is just the beginning!
Excerpt from THE FIRST GIRL
There was a girl before the one called Beauty. A first girl, equally good and beautiful, but they don’t tell stories about her. No one likes a story without a happy ending.
The first girl had a name, but no one knows it anymore. The prince did, once, but now her name is lost with the rest of her, under the dirt and the stone and the roses.
The story of Beauty and the Beast begins with roses. You know how Beauty’s father plucked a rose from the forbidden garden and brought it to his youngest daughter. You know the prince came after it, and would take no payment except Beauty herself.
Do you know why?
Do you know what a prince has to do to get locked away in a castle of his own keeping? Except it wasn’t a castle. It was the royal hunting lodge, so fine and big it seemed like a castle to the villagers of the area who would never visit the palace in the capital. They’re the ones who started the story of Beauty, because they didn’t know about the first girl. No one did, except the prince and his parents, the good king and queen.
What, do you think, would make the royal couple give up their only son, and hide him away in the middle of the king’s forest where no one was allowed to go except with royal permission?
The story of the first girl begins with roses, too.