February Newsletter: Congratulations, Your Nightmare Came True

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Our little blue car emerged from the tunnel and hummed up Botevgradsko Boulevard. To our left: a mural of chains melting off someone’s forearms. The kids were looking out the windows, there was nobody to interrupt us and nothing that needed cleaning, and I relished the ability to complete a thought.

“Ha!” I said.

“What?” asked Pavlina.

We stopped at a red light.

“Congratulations,” I said. “My nightmare came true. I’ve been called a racist on the internet.”

“Well, not exactly,” said Pavlina.

“Okay, I was called – ” I corrected myself, ” – my work was called ‘problematic’ in an email. That’s like halfway there. That’s a benchmark.”

“Yeah, okay. Congratulations.”

She wasn’t being sarcastic. We turned and headed south toward Mount Vitosha, and I burned with joy.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, psychologist Viktor Frankl talks about his brand of “logotherapy” in which he instructs an insomniac patient to go to bed with the intention of staying awake all night. If the patient doesn’t go to sleep, mission accomplished. If they do…you’re welcome. I’ve tried the trick and it worked1.

Writer’s block, too, crumbles when I commit myself to write as crappy a first draft as possible. John Swartzwelder talks about the “crappy elf,” who writes the first draft of his scripts, and Steven Pressfield tells us to follow our resistance. Change is frightening, and progress is change. As distinct from danger, fear is an excellent indicator of the direction of your next step.

How can I improve as an author? As an author, what am I afraid of? Put like that, the answer is easy: I’m afraid of being called a racist on the internet.

I’ve read about online mobs destroying writers’ careers. I’ve seen my friends and colleagues either give up on writing or else join a mob. I’ve leaned ever further toward giving up. I’ve never stopped writing, but I confess I didn’t work very hard on putting my work in front of other people. I dragged my feet. At critical moments, I conveniently forgot to mention that I had a book out lock myself in my tower and produce manuscripts that other people would sell. I thought I could keep my head down and still succeed.

It didn’t work. My soul searching last month revealed that my mission is to connect with people through telling stories. That means readership is a higher priority than sales, and that means I have to get out there and show people my work, even though that raises the risk I’ll get called out.

The first, easiest step was to join some forums, and to start participating more on the forums where I had previously lurked. I asked for (and received!) a great deal of help and advice. Then, in one of those conversations, my work got called “problematic.”

I was so angry, my hands shook. My defenses and counter-attacks boiled like bats around me. I wanted so much to write them all down in an email, but I didn’t. I vented my spleen in my notebook (in red pen no less) where nobody would see it. Then I shared the story with Pavlina and others. I shut the down the email conversation with a “thank you” to all involved, and I took steps to make sure that this wouldn’t happen again. I resolved to trust my feelings more, use voice rather than text for interviews with experts, and to be more honest earlier in the conversation (“that isn’t the story I want to tell”). I realized I’d gone to experts expecting praise and validation, which was unfair of me. Also, I put a stronger setting on my app-blocker. No email outside of email time.

That’s why I was so jazzed in the car five days later. I’d passed through the wall of fire, and it hadn’t burned me. I managed to write, even on the day my work got called problematic, and for each day thereafter. Some of the stuff I wrote was quite good. My nightmare had come true, and it felt great.

If my story got someone angry, it has a good chance of saving someone else. I haven’t yet been called a racist on the internet, but I’m well on my way. With any luck, I’ll get there soon.

In other news:

I recorded a series of videos with Paul Venet about Atlantis, a book about architecture, life, and the sea by Renzo and Carlo Piano. I wrote and thought a bit about the ghosts of Ghost of Mercy. And I kept on keeping on with the third (or “skin”) draft of Wealthgiver. I’m finding this draft is mostly about keeping straight the wants, decisions, and realizations of the characters, and making sure that what everybody is doing makes some sense. You may enjoy this bit of Wealthgiver worldbuilding.

I also read these Thoughts on Writing Serials, which gave me some good advice in addition to the answers I got about writing serial fiction from the generous people on the r/rational forum.

Things I read:

This delightful little story about getting investors (and asteroid mining)

Going Postal by Terry Pratchett — set a lovable crook to catch a robber baron (and reform the postal service)

This is my third or fourth re-read of Going Postal, and it was only this time that I recognized the allegory for the Financial Crisis (I already knew it was an allegory for web 2.0). Of course I enjoyed it immensely, especially the romance between two very un-paragonic people. I saw some of the seams this time (e.g. the transition between the romantic dinner and attack on the post office) but as always I value the glimpse into Pratchett’s process. I’m looking forward to re-reading Making Money, which I remember doing a better job of balancing the fantasy element with everything else.

You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier — I was There. You Should have Seen It!

It was a real education listening to You are Not a Gadget and Prattchett’s Going Postal at the same time. The author of the first could have been a character in the second. Lanier talks an awful lot about cephalopods, but he does pinpoint problems with the way we use computers and how to potentially solve them. I appreciate his philosophy that nothing computers do is meaningful until a human interacts with it. My biggest criticism of the book (aside from the part about cuttlefish) is its lack of coherence. It’s more like a series of blog articles, which I think that undermines Lanier’s point.

How Conversation Works by Anne Curzan — a bit too prescriptive

These lectures give us a good introduction to what you might call practical sociolinguistics. Curzan takes us through some of the mechanisms underlying conversations with the purpose of (after a period of painful self-consciousness) improving our skills at them. I got some good out of the lectures, but there are places where Curzan stops telling me how I talk and starts telling me how I ought to talk. I would have appreciated less “be careful not to X” and more “if you want Y, then you should Z.”

Illborn by Daniel T. Jackson — an attractive story poorly dressed

I read this in my effort to find a middle class of fiction: not life-changing, but fine as entertainment. Illborn fits: four young adults develop psychic powers and learn how to use them while the church hunts them down in fantasy medieval Europe. It has an excellent hook at the beginning, and while we don’t quite get what the prologue seems to promise, we do get something. The style is dull and plodding, but once I saw past the words and into the events they described, I really did care about the characters. There were a few times when I was transported into the world of the story, so there you go. Good book.

Superluminary by John C. Wright — Teleport the Andromeda Galaxy to defeat the Space Vampires

John C. Wright is a big ideas scifi author, but has a tendency to get silly. The Count to Infinity series is full of big ideas, and the Lost on the Last Continent series is too silly for me. Superluminary is somewhere in between. The discoverer of an alien artifact gets (technology that is indistinguishable from) magic, and uses it to set himself up as emperor of the solar system, with his children ruling over the planets, moons, and asteroids. Then, space vampires. I was disappointed when we never dug into the democratization of magic, and while there was some interesting zero-sum game theory going on with the vampires, again it was under-developed. But the plot moved along and one episode hooked into the next. Unlike the unimaginably ancient and malevolent un-life infesting the galactic core, I was satisfied.

See you next month

1 In combination of lifestyle changes and other new mental health habits. See more here.

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