Monday, October 27, 2014

To Retweet or Not To Retweet?

I honestly never believed it would happen to me.  "No way!" I argued. "Why in the world would I do that?"  I thought it was pointless, silly, and a waste of my time.

But I finally did it.  I finally joined twitter.

Before I knew it, I was a tweeting monstrosity, retweeting and plugging random blog posts with no clue of what I was doing. Truth be told, I still don't know what I'm doing most of the time.  But I've figured out a couple of things that have worked for me.  Maybe they'll work for you, too.

When to Retweet

Retweeting is (almost) everything on twitter.  The best way to be noticed is to retweet.  You gain the attention of the person you're tweeting (which can result in a follow).  More importantly, you're essentially pre-reciprocating.  People who retweet often, with quality tweets, get retweeted themselves later.  And if someone in my measly following of less than 500 (as of the publication of this post) retweets something of mine to their 10,000 + followers, then my words (and my name) gain a bigger audience.  I can't offer them much in return just yet, but perhaps they'll make connections with some of my followers, and meeting the right person at the right time can change your life.

So what should you retweet?  Almost everything I retweet comes not directly from my followers but from searches of particular hashtags.  Some of them are general, others more specific. #OctWritingChallenge is an awesome place to get community support with your writing goals.  (Check out for details in other months.)  Then there are several blogging hashtags that are particularly active on certain days of the week:  #MondayBlogs.  #WWWBlogs ("Women Writers Wednesday").  #ArchiveDay.  I love these three in particular because they are almost linked to interesting content.  I post links to my blog on those specific days (with the hashtag), and I spend my free time reading and retweeting others' works in return.

But here's the key:  Retweeting everything you see will get you blocked.  No one wants to see your name in their feed every five seconds.  Knowing what to retweet is crucial.

What I look for in a good tweet:

  1. The tweet (or blog post) is interesting and eye-catching.  A tweet has 140 characters to really get the reader interested in what the writer has to say.  Make it good!  Don't spam your followers with drivel.
  2. The post to which the tweet links (if it does) is interesting and well-written.  If the blog post is littered with errors in grammar, or if the writing is dull and uninteresting, I won't retweet it. Under no circumstances do I tweet something I wouldn't personally promote.  Take the time and read the post!  I've seen authors who I sincerely believe set their profiles on auto-retweet (even if there is no such thing).  It's like they retweet everything with specific keywords or hashtags. It's annoying, and I at least usually respond to such activities with a mute or an unfollow.
  3. The tweet can be edited down if necessary for comments. I like to give my wholehearted approval or add an idea to a particularly good post, but sometimes you can't do that and still get the essence of the tweet across.  I tend to avoid doing straight retweets (even if it drives the original authors crazy).

So tell me, what are your requirements for a good tweet? What could I or other aspiring writers do to make our tweets more relevant, interesting, and worthy of a retweet?  Leave your ideas in the comments below!  

Friday, October 24, 2014

Weaving in the Ends - Fear of the Finish

I have mentioned once or twice before on Twitter that, when not writing or at my day job, I'm often crocheting or knitting. I've been crocheting for a few years now, but I've recently decided to take up knitting as well. Of course, for my first major project I pick this beast of a pattern.

It's turning out relatively well, all things considered. I'm about 82 rows in, and here's what I have to show for it:

Please forgive the dirty couch. Nowhere better in my tiny apartment to take pics!  :-(
It doesn't look like much now, mind you, but when I finally finish binding off and getting it blocked, it will at least roughly resemble the pattern. I hope. Possibly.

To me, yarn work and writing are analogous processes. You start off with a pattern or idea, a generic feel for how a particular project is going to look at completion. But by the time you reach the end, your final result is sometimes less a reflection of the pattern you started with and more a reflection of the choices and changes you made along the way. 

Mind you, there's less room (and fewer chances) for error in yarn work, I think, than there is in writing. If I'm following a specific pattern (as I almost always am), the number of stitches in a given row is vital to continuing the project in a recognizable pattern. However, if you're experienced enough, you have a pre-established bag of tricks for hiding your errors as you go. No one other than your fellow yarn snobs will ever know the pattern was disrupted. In the end, you just have to follow the directions as perfectly as you can.

In writing, the end result is so subjective that the possibility for "error" is limitless.  Maybe I should not have taken that plot twist in chapter 23.  Maybe the twist is fine, but I should have set it up in previous chapters better.  Maybe that speech in chapter 11 is pure drivel written in a moment of NyQuil induced insanity.  In the end, that's what rewrites are for -- for finding those errors and fixing them before anyone notices the disruption in the pattern.

Here's the catch: I knit or crochet for myself or for my close friends. I have no desire to do it professionally. (Soapbox: Do you know how much we'd have to charge just to recoup the yarn alone? The skein of yarn for this pattern was $40.  No joke.  Remember that when you see these things ridiculously priced at craft fairs. End soapbox.) That means that I don't have to take my errors as seriously. Very few people will ever see them, and those who will don't care.

But I hope to write for more than just those closest to me. I want to produce work that can be widely appreciated (or even loathed--notoriety has its perks). And I hope desperately to eventually get paid for it. Therefore, I have no choice but to work desperately on eliminating errors before anything goes to press. Working the kinks out of a manuscript, particularly one you've spent a lot of time on already, can be the most frustrating task on the planet.

For both knitting and writing, the final step is always weaving in the ends: tucking in those rough edges and making something beautiful out of an imperfect design. And that's the frightening part. Once the ends are woven in, the journey is over. You gift that completed project to the world. Or to yourself. Or whatever. But any unresolved errors are there, glaring at you, mocking you for all eternity.

For me, that fear of the finish is my greatest source of writer's block. I have such a blast crafting, whether it's beautiful patterns or beautiful words, that when the product is close to completion, I inevitably have a moment of panic.  Last weekend, I'd finished drafting all but the concluding chapter of my current novel.  I was so excited to be so close to entering another re-write.  And you know what?  I had to stop writing entirely for several days before I could bear to tackle that final chapter.  The idea that the draft might be fully on paper and ready for me to re-sculpt was terrifying.

Similarly, this past week I received a letter for acceptance of publication on a short piece (scheduled for publication November 5 -- I will be sure to plug it once it's out).  And although I was thrilled to get that first acceptance letter, I am also terrified.  That work will be OUT there, despite its flaws, forever accessible by those who choose to read it.  And how frightening is that?  It almost makes me want to give up writing altogether.

But I won't.  I'll just keep stitching words into phrases, phrases into sentences, paragraphs into chapters. Eventually I'll have stories that I might one day call finished.

If only I didn't have to weave in all those ends to do it.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Why Marriage Matters

October, for those of you who do not already know, is LGBTQ History Month.  This time of year always inspires in me a need to reflect, to write about myself as a self-identified lesbian in context of the world in which I walk, live, and breathe.  Usually I end up settling for a post regarding why coming out still matters, or what self-love might mean in the context of identity.

This year, something remarkable happened, and my whole planned blog post went to hell.  Just yesterday afternoon, I saw a headline I never expected to see:

"Same Sex Marriage is Now Legal in Oklahoma"

I always wondered what I would feel like when this day came for me.  As a teenager, I didn't think I'd see the day when it was legal in any more than a handful of super blue states.  As a new adult, I didn't think I'd see it legal in my home state in my lifetime.  And as a betrothed thirty-year-old woman, I didn't think I'd see it legal in time for my own wedding.

Why Marriage Matters

My partner and I met on September 19, 2010.  We hit it off pretty much immediately.  Our first date, which we'd planned to be a trip to the OKC Zoo, became coffee and then the zoo.  That became coffee, the zoo, and dinner.  That became coffee, the zoo, dinner, and a movie.  And if it hadn't been a Sunday, we probably would have continued with more coffee, desert, etc.  I knew right away that this meeting would result in something special.  By October 23, 2010, she'd gotten down on one knee (very cutely, I might add) and asked if I would be her girlfriend.  It's still one of the cutest memories I have of our early romantic relationship.

A little less than a year later, I was in a very rough place.  I'd made the decision not to pursue my Ph.D., partially because I didn't want to leave Katherine behind.  I'd had difficulty finding a decent paying job and was making a bit more than minimum wage working a job for which I had no love at all.  I was miserable, and I couldn't even afford the love of my life a birthday present.  But, as sure then as I am today, I asked whether we might upgrade from "girlfriend" to "partner."  She accepted immediately.  From then on, no word less permanent than that would do.

Another year later, I asked her to marry me.

Yet another year later, we set a tentative date.

Yet another year later (as of this month), we began actually making plans.

And next year, when we finally do finish up our wedding plans and "tie the knot" it will be legal for us to do so.  We had planned on using our honeymoon to go somewhere we could make the marriage official.  Now we don't have to.  We can go on the trip we'd always dreamed of rather than the trip we needed to make.

I should be thrilled (and of course I am) that the thousands of Oklahomans without legal protection for their partners can now more easily obtain those protections.  I should be bouncing off the walls with joy.  But in the light of day, I must force a very grim reality.  If, after our wedding, my partner and I drive home to visit my family in Mississippi, those legal protections disappear in an instant.  It's as if we no longer exist as a legally bound couple.  If, God forbid, something should happen to my family, I might not be allowed to care for/foster/adopt my sister's children.  If we have a wreck out on Highway 82 and I am gravely injured, my power-of-attorney very well might revert back to my parents.  They could, if they chose, take those rights away from my partner.

That's why marriage MATTERS.  This issue can no longer be a religious issue--even Christian denominations and individual churches differ with regard to same-sex relationships and their associated legal protections.  It's still, however, a moral issue.

It's immoral for anyone to deny other people the right to define their own family structures legally. Neither blood nor gender makes a family; love does.

It's immoral that grown adults intentionally make young people feel lesser than their peers because of their attractions or gender expression.  People's sense of worth should be tied to their personal achievements and their inherent value and humanity; gender and sexual expression should not even enter the equation.

It's immoral to equate my love for another consenting, mentally competent adult to pedophilia or bestiality.  When the U.S. allows underage children or animals to enter into legally binding agreements, I will be happy to join the masses in the protest line.

It's immoral for one person's right to freedom of religion to extend so far as to deny me the right to practice mine.  My religious beliefs require that I be faithful and monogamous to my one chosen partner; I welcome you the right to be faithful (or not) to yours.

It's immoral that the church of my birth will host a woman's third marriage with joy (even when its savior specifically decried divorce) but will not even validate my first marriage to my one and only long-term partner.

And it's immoral that my relationship to my partner is somehow seen as less valued--non-existent even-- when I cross state lines because of the genitalia I was given at birth.  That's not only homophobia; it's sexism, and it's disgusting.

At the end of the day, I don't care what you think of me or of my life choices.  I don't even ask that you respect them.  I ask only that you give me the freedom to pursue my happiness the same way you're allowed to pursue yours, and to allow me to protect my loved ones just as you'd like to do.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Writing What You Don't Know

"Write what you know."

I've never heard any more clich├ęd (if at least superficially true) piece of advice on writing.  And I've heard it millions of times.  I imagine you have, too.

The basic sentiment behind the statement, that writers can best express those things that they have experienced or felt, is absolutely true.  Those stories that best immerse the reader in the human experience, in the depths of love and hope and fear and despair and treachery, become inevitably grander for the author's empathy for and experience with those emotions.  Likewise, a good autobiographical (or semi-autobiographical) story, when told well, will reach its readers by its sheer authenticity.

Some of the more superficial implications of the statement are likewise true.  A writer who has no knowledge of the basics of police procedure, for instance, will have difficulty producing a believable protagonist who is a by-the-books law enforcement officer.  A heterosexual man will have difficulty writing from the point-of-view of a post-transition transsexual woman.  An author with no previous experience in classical musicianship will have difficulty understanding just why the simplest of Bach preludes will drive a great pianist mad.  These deficiencies in knowledge and experience can be nigh-on-impossible to overcome--or at least to overcome well.

But, if we take the oft-repeated adage literally and apply it to every situation, where then will we find the elements of fantasy? Of speculative fiction? Of paranormal horror?  Heck, how can a person who self-identifies as cisgender female write from the point of view of her male counterparts?  And yet writers do all these things--with varying degrees of success--every day.

Write What You Know
Tatsuya Ishida is my idol.  Sinfest is the awesome.  Go love the comic and buy the books.

I recently came upon an article that argued that we should not be limited to writing what we know:  we instead should write what we understand.  If love (by its presence or absence) is a universal experience, then a writer should be able to place that emotion within the bounds of almost any context and produce a believable story.  Or at least one entertaining enough to allow its readers to suspend their disbelief.  Furthermore, that suspension comes more easily to readers if the author has paid particular attention to the world of the story, even if it's entirely fictional.  A writer cannot necessarily know that world of pure imagination.  But a writer should understand it.

I want to take that argument a step further.  I believe that sometimes, we write what we know.  Sometimes, we write what we understand into the context of those things we don't know.  And sometimes, we write about what we don't know specifically because we want to understand.  

I have written before on how my current novel-in-edits, Choosing Her Chains, began with a chance meeting of a character.  She intrigued me from the moment I met her, and I dove right into the process of discovering who she was.  But my journey from that strange first meeting to the present, as I attempt to clean up the final manuscript, was much more than character discovery.  Through the writing process, I began to better understand myself.

The story has transitioned through three compositional stages.  First came the vignette.  I'd imagined this woman standing on the edge of a lake bed waiting for something.  I knew she longed desperately to step out into the water, but that she was waiting for something to call her into its depths, to grant her the power and freedom to move.  I wrote that first vignette to discover what--or who--she'd been waiting for.  In the process, I realized that her desire, her longing, her courage and her fear, those were all just my own attributes projected onto an unknown character's form.  As I wrote what would become the final form of that short scene, I had to delve into myself.  What would most force ME to wait barefoot in freezing water?  Could I have done what she was doing?  What did I have to confront in myself before I could portray her decision authentically?

That 1500-word vignette grew a plot, and before I knew it I had outlined a 20,000 word novella.  In that particular version of the story, I spent a great deal of time getting to know my protagonist.  The outcome at story's end depended heavily upon a sensitive understanding of the plot points that came before it.  I had to force myself farther than I had before.  My own boundaries regarding writing had to be broken, or I would never be able to portray the kind of emotion I KNEW my protagonist felt at story's end.

The novella was never going to be able to stand on its own, because although I understood the protagonist's motives and decisions, I didn't really understand the characters that pushed her into those decisions.  Outlining the full novel became a process of looking into each character's mind and discovering who they were, and how their own pasts and personalities contributed to their decisions within the story.

And that's when the epiphany came.  I had known the story I wanted to tell.  I more or less understood the "moral" I wanted to portray.  But until I'd examined it from every possible angle, worked out each person's motivations and why they felt the way they did, I could not have articulated why I wanted the story to come out the way it has.  And without the "why," the whole story (and its underlying premise) fell flat.

Now that the novel's about to enter its second stage of rewrites, I believe I've discovered why "write what you know" fails to work for so many writers, myself included.  For many of us, there is a demonstrable difference between "writing" and "editing" and between "editing" and "publishing." 

"Writing" is about discovery, about asking yourself what you do and don't know, and about seeking answers for what it is you don't understand.  It's about giving yourself permission to push yourself beyond your comfort zone, even if the attempt fails miserably.  Sometimes pieces never move beyond this stage, nor should they.

"Editing" is about synthesis.  It's about taking those things you've learned while "writing" and turning them into something cohesive and clear.  This stage turns ideas into beliefs and thoughts into knowledge.  I have had many stories languish at this stage simply because I'm not yet quite at the point where I feel I've come to the correct knowledge with regard to the story.

"Publishing" is about taking what you've learned, what you now know, and presenting it as best you can to your readers.  It's about taking your well-formed beliefs, knowledge, and passions, and letting them move in the world.  The best stories, fiction or non-fiction, do well once published not only because the author wrote what they know, but because they validated that knowledge within themselves long before the story ever went to press.

So, I've decided to strike "Write what you know" from my bag of writing truths.  Forevermore (or at least until next week), my mantra shall become:

Write what you don't know.

Edit to come to know it.

Publish what you know that you know.

Then if, at the end of the day, you change your mind, that's okay.  The day we stop learning is the day we die (an apothegm seventy million times more true).  But don't only write what you know.  Write what you want to know.  Pay attention to the details of what you're writing and eventually, you will know what you have written.