The War of Art

My sister-in-law recently gave me Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art: Break Through Your Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles. I’ve heard about it for years from other friends, but I’ve read my share of inspiring books about creativity, and I think I’ve gotten a little jaded. Often when I’m reading a book about writing, or attending sessions at a writers conference, I find myself thinking, This is absolutely true and all—so why am I not just writing my book right now instead of talking about writing my book?

Steven Pressfield gets it. The “chapters” are short and to the point, he doesn’t wax poetical (although he’s plenty mystical about the creative process), and he too is skeptical about too much talk and not enough action (simply sitting down and writing/painting/composing/etc.). War of Art reads less like a how-to book on writing and more like a daily devotional for creators. Each chapter—which range from half a page to a couple of pages—gives the reader an insight or challenge, but then Pressfield leaves it up to the reader to mull it over or act on it.

Resistance is probably Pressfield’s central insight in the book, which I found very refreshing. The idea of “writer’s block” has always annoyed me, perhaps because I’ve never experienced it, but also because I’ve heard of many “cures” for writer’s block that just seem like fancy ways of avoiding writing. But I have absolutely experienced Resistance in my creative work, and I appreciate Pressfield’s honesty that Resistance is a daily problem that never goes away. Momentum is also a creative reality—it’s easier for me to continue with a project when I’ve recently made some progress, especially when I’m touching the project every day—but Resistance doesn’t go away simply because I’ve got some momentum on a book. As I was sharing with a friend last week, I’m a hundred pages into editing my pirate book (which is long at 450 manuscript pages); I’ve literally spent hundreds of hours on this project and believe it can be a wonderful book some day, and yet often I have a hard time getting into the manuscript because I feel like, What’s the point?

Pressfield does occasionally get a little woo-woo for me. Like, I have my doubts that people resisting their life’s creative work is a contributor to the prevalence of cancer, or on the flip side that engaging in creative work can help cancer go into remission. I’m also probably not going to be praying to the Greek muses any time soon, and I’m not sure what I think about angels being involved in the transmission and completion of creative work.

That said, I love Pressfield’s insistence that all people are creative—whether they know it or not—and that our creative work is part of what makes us human and gives us purpose. I like his certainty that creative work is worth doing, and doing every day, whether or not we earn a paycheck for it. And I completely agree that creative work—which builds empathy and connection between people in their various situations—is essential to human cultural and spiritual growth.

Carnival Row

A friend texted me a couple of weeks ago and asked, “When am I seeing you next? I desperately need to talk to you about Carnival Row.”

I’d seen a trailer on Amazon earlier in the summer, and my first reaction was an excited, Someone’s making high-budget steampunk? My second thought was less excited and perhaps more realistic: But, I mean, what are the chances that it’s actually any good?

I watched the first couple of episodes with my friend, and over the course of a week watched the other six episodes when I could.

And, no, it’s not a great show, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who isn’t already a fantasy fan. I think at some point I described it to my brother as “gothic trash fantasy.” But I thoroughly enjoyed watching it, the show got some things very right, and it surprised me in several ways I’d like to see happen more often in fantasy.

In the plus column, my first impression that the series was well-produced proved true throughout the whole show. The visual storytelling was wonderfully immersive, from the fairy creatures to the grungy nineteenth-century sets and costumes to the steampunk technology. It’s a fun show to watch, even when the character arcs and believability leave things to be desired.

The world building in general was strong, not only in the scenery and props. The war that provided the historical backdrop for the show had a number of opposing players with complex relationships between the different human and fairy populations, and the political systems made sense for the most part. Amazon provides a lot of trivia on Prime videos, which often are about the filming or actors; for Carnival Row, many of the trivia bits were extra historical details that the show creators knew about the world but hadn’t had space to work into the script.

And the plot for the main two characters was satisfying, although they were archetypal roles: the brooding detective inspector in his Derby hat and long coat and the feisty Irish fairy who protects her people and culture. Many of the other characters fell flat for me, though, because of the predictability of the storylines, especially the rich humans and their new faun neighbor trying to break through human stereotypes about fauns.

Like lots of good fantasy and sci-fi before it, Carnival Row used its distance from modern-day issues to in fact directly address those issues. Large populations of fairies and fauns have been displaced in the war, and the show uses their status as refugees in a human city to critique Western responses to the global refugee crisis. Racism is compounded in interesting ways by white, black, and brown actors portraying both humans (privileged figures) as well as fairies and fauns (disenfranchised figures). The critique of politics explored through Chancellor Breakspear and his family was also interesting but spoiled by too many unrealistic details (such as an assassination of a political rival that is glossed over without a police investigation, public outcry, or political retaliation in parliament?).

Probably my favorite aspect of the show, however, was the genre transitions between urban steampunk fantasy and high fantasy. One episode explores how the two main characters first met years ago in the war, and viewers are transported from the urban grunge of the Burgue to a snowy mountain monastery that would fit into a good epic fantasy series. With the continuity of characters and story, though, the mix of fantasy subgenres was seamless and effectively made the world feel a lot bigger and more lived in. I liked when the show creators were thinking big and didn’t let the viewers’ expectations box them in.

The Theater

Over Labor Day I was lucky enough to get to Stratford, Ontario, to watch a slew of theater shows. We hit a nice mix: The Merry Wives of Windsor, a comedy, Othello, notoriously tragic and difficult, and Billy Elliot, a contemporary musical.

I’ve mentioned before how much I enjoy art forms that aren’t writing, because they give me a space to think about craft—the making of characters, scenes, emotions, plots/progressions—in ways that don’t correlate directly to writing, but are cognate enough to broaden my writing palette. Theater at Stratford is always one of those craft-broadening experiences for me.

The Merry Wives of Windsor was everything one would expect and want from a Shakespeare comedy: ill-advised love letters, convoluted plots to humiliate a proud fool, disguises, cross-dressing, elopements, and jealous spouses whose love is clarified and reaffirmed in the end. In now-classic Shakespearean tradition, the show was set in an alternate time period, the 1950s aesthetic complete with checkered suits and beauty parlor hair dryers. I recently gave a talk on suspense in fiction at a writers group, and it was interest to see how much of the play’s humor revolves around comedic suspense, or the control of information between the characters and the audience. In theater, unlike writing, information control also becomes spatial, as the audience may know the bumbling Falstaff is hidden in the laundry hamper on stage while Mr. Ford may not.

I hadn’t seen Othello live before, although I enjoy Laurence Fishburne’s 1995 film adaptation. The director (in his notes in the program) stated that he wanted the production to reflect on contemporary racial issues, so the Venetian soldiers wore army camo and carried assault rifles, and more than once Othello—the only black character on stage—had to deescalate a situation where others have drawn their firearms on him without real provocation. Probably my favorite part of the show was a hip-hop dance routine at the beginning, with moves that acted out and foreshadowed the whole narrative arc (such as the dancers strangling others and themselves).

As a non-Shakespeare show, Billy Elliot the Musical provided contrast as well as unexpected continuity. As a retrospective on the 1984–85 UK miners’ strike, Billy Elliot raises political issues of class, visibility, and human dignity—issues that, like those in Othello, we continue to wrestle with today. The role of dance and music to express what otherwise can be so hard to express played out in both performances as well. Billy Elliot is also, of course, a coming-of-age story about an artist pursuing his dream in the face of big obstacles, so for an aspiring writer like me, there was a lot of emotional resonance, and I may have cried a couple of times.

Beyond the shows, Stratford is full of other creative experience. Beautifully laid-out gardens and parks provide places to walk and think. Art in the Park and gift shops full of indigenous art, books, home goods, and well-curated antiques make for enjoyable browsing. And there are plenty of fun and well thought out restaurants to eat at. I always come away from Stratford with a lot of images and impressions and ideas jumbling around in my head.

Epic Soundtrack Music

Except for a short-lived phase after college, I pretty much always listen to music while I write. I like the mental space it gives me from wherever I’m writing, whether I’m at home, my office, a coffee shop, or where have you. Music also creates a specific emotional environment for me, so my choice of music can help me get into the mood of a manuscript, scene, or character.

Particular albums or artists are permanently locked in my brain with particular book projects. I listened repeatedly to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s soundtrack for The Social Network when working on a steampunk novel with a lot of underhanded dealings and covert operations. My World War II zombie book required long stretches of sadness and anger, so I found myself moving between Max Richter’s studio albums, James Newton Howard’s soundtrack for Defiance, and Crystal Castles’ later work, especially (III) and Amnesty. My portal fantasy novel included several scenes where characters are listening to post-rock bands like Hammock and MONO, so naturally I listened to them frequently when writing the book.

For whatever reason, I’m gravitating to epic soundtrack music while editing my pirate fantasy novel. And not necessarily the well-regarded stuff, although I listen to my share of Two Steps from Hell. More often than not, though, I’m on YouTube searching for “2 hours epic soundtrack music” and clicking on the playlists with the DeviantArt-esque fan fiction pictures. (The user Pandora Journey has some excellent playlists, if this kind of thing is your jam.)

Listening to epic soundtrack music makes sense when I’m working on, say, a scene with shape-shifting magicians, or giant sea snakes, or gunslinging pirates. But most of the scenes I’ve been editing lately are quieter: New World bureaucrats talking about maps and taxation, priests performing funerals, characters grieving the loss of family members. Not exactly the stuff where one would expect a full choir and orchestra worthy of Gandalf and the balrog facing off on the Bridge of Khazad-dûm. I’ve tried turning on quieter music but sooner or later (and usually sooner) I find myself returning to my epic soundtrack playlists.

The book is epic in scale, the sort of project that ballooned tens of thousands of words longer than expected in drafting, and in editing so far we don’t seem to be making it any shorter. It’s multigenerational and deals with big issues like colonialism, race, power, wealth, ownership, and a mess of other things that we probably actually aren’t qualified to talk about. And even before the first draft was finished we were talking about a potential trilogy and other spin-off series.

So perhaps what I’m listening to makes sense even during the slower parts of the manuscript. In any case, epic soundtrack music seems to be getting me into the mental and emotional space I need to be to edit this book, so I see no reason to get off this train just yet.

Micro Commenting

It’s been a crazy weekend (for good reasons), and I’m stealing a moment between One Thing and The Other to write briefly.

I’ve been having problems getting the character relationships right in the chapter of my pirate fantasy novel I’m editing, and in general the amount of edits needed in this manuscript has felt intimidating. I find myself rereading scenes, knowing I need to add more of a character or hit a plot point but feeling frozen about where and how exactly to add it. I can get hung up on the specific words too, worrying about whether the prose is just right.

For the last couple of scenes, to deal with that frozen feeling of where to begin, I’ve just started by reading the scene and placing lots of localized comments: “Could mention more of Character X here.” “Does this line ring true given the edits to last chapter?” “Show more of X emotion here.” Instead of worrying about whether the writing is “good,” simply reading and responding helps me to focus on what needs to be done where, and it builds a little momentum and makes the editing feel more manageable and directed.

I’ve only tried this approach of peppering a two or three page scene with a bunch of comments a few times now, so who knows if it will be a helpful strategy later on in the manuscript. But even if it’s just a technique that got me through a couple of scenes where I felt overwhelmed by the work, I’m still glad I stumbled across it.

World Building

This week I put together a list of terms—character names, geographical places, demonyms, currencies—that my sister and I never figured out while writing the first draft of our pirate fantasy novel.

The manuscript is full of words in all caps like PLANTATION NAME and COINS where one or the other of us wanted something that sounded cool and appropriate to the world, but we didn’t want to slow down and figure it out just then. Ultimately I think this strategy served us well to not get gummed up in the world-building details so the first draft could develop as quickly as possible. But now we’re paying for it. “Not my favorite part of world building,” I texted her with a monkey-covering-eyes emoji.

Which is a bit strange for me, because I generally love world building. My background is literary studies, and a couple of my solo novels have been alternate history rather than high fantasy. I am only too happy to get lost online researching cannon technology during the age of sail or the Mayan pantheon or the use of messenger pigeons throughout history. For my high fantasy projects, too, I tend to rely as much as possible on real-world cultures, geographies, myths, and languages to help build those needed aspects of realism so readers will go with the unfamiliar magical parts.

Even in the pirate book, much of the world building has come together naturally, and continues to work itself out in the editing process. For example, a later part of the first draft takes places in the French-speaking capital city, and it’s been easy while editing earlier conversations where they talk about the city to fill in the details we hadn’t figured out at that point. Questions of geography, governmental structure, cuisine, even terms of endearment slowly sorted themselves out over the months of drafting, and reapproaching the early chapters for editing with that level of familiarity has helped me address a lot of remaining questions with a confidence I didn’t have the first time through.

But for some reason names and terms are not coming as easily. I find myself scrolling through online dictionaries of Old French or Anglo-Norman, or researching the languages geographically between Parisian French and Castilian Spanish that are no longer widely spoken, but nothing seems to synthesize. I keep getting caught between liking names for what they mean and liking them for how they sound. I waffle on whether something is ripped too directly from the real world or whether it will feel too different to readers.

The good news about cowriting is that two people get to brainstorm and come up with ideas, and my sister has come up with a few names recently (for really important things, like the main character’s last name *embarrassed grin*) that work really well. And I can continue to edit for character and plot just fine without having the names all sorted.

Maybe finalized names are a problem to leave for draft 3.

Developmental Editing, Content Editing

Editing at a publishing house during the day and moonlighting as a fiction author naturally feed into each other. I remember when I got my first few manuscripts at work, and I had those pinch-me days where I couldn’t believe someone was paying me to do what I’ve happily done for friends and siblings in my free time: reading stories, jotting down questions and comments about the characters or plot, suggesting ways to tighten up the sentences.

The way I edit my own fiction has also been greatly influenced by our editing pipeline at my publishing house. We typically run two rounds of edits, the developmental edit first, followed by a content edit. (Some houses call these macro edits and micro edits, or substantive edits and copy edits. I attended an editors conference where there was a whole panel discussion that devolved into editors defining what terms they use and then comparing and contrasting them with the terms other editors used.) We tend to have different editors do the developmental and content edits, which gets a fresh pair of eyes on the manuscript, but other houses have one editor shepherd the manuscript through the whole process. Editors can vary a lot in style, so sometimes it’s easier on the author (and the author’s trust and patience) to work with one editor instead of two.

The developmental edit is where we look at big-picture issues. If I’m working on fiction, I ask questions like, Are the problems and promises set up at the beginning of the novel answered by the end? Are all the characters necessary? Is every scene necessary? Are plot points adequately foreshadowed? Are the characters consistent, and at the same time do they have satisfying arcs (growth or spiral)? Are themes traced throughout the whole book rather than flickering in and out? This is typically the messier edit, since more content decisions are still being made, but it’s also exciting to come alongside authors to round out their characters and plot.

The content edit is more about the sentence-by-sentence prose. Are there repetitive descriptions I can delete? How many dialogue tags can I take out? What are the author’s pet words that they overuse? What themes or character choices are so hammered home that I can soften them up? Which sentences are confusing or unclear?

Of course there’s overlap between the two kinds of editing. I can’t stop myself completely from copy editing when I’m supposed to be developing a manuscript. But in my own writing, I often find it freeing that I don’t have to fix everything all in one pass.

My sister and I are editing our colonial fantasy novel right now, and there are a lot of big-picture changes: character personality changes, different motivations and actions, deleted characters. I tend toward perfectionism, so even while I’m writing new content or moving scenes around and stitching together fresh transitions, I have this desire to have my writing be as good as I can make it. But this quickly leads me to paralysis and tinkering.

“That’s what the next draft is for,” we keep texting each other when we find ourselves worrying too much about whether the prose or rhythm will knock the socks off our readers.

Momentum

Let’s just say I haven’t gotten a lot of writing done in the past three or four weeks. I’ve had a lot of family in town from out of state and out of country this summer, and for a nice change of pace, I spent some of my writing time these past weeks reading/editing some fiction and academic writing for friends. I also recently finished editing one project and switched gears to coediting a different manuscript. Legendarily, Anthony Trollope would finish one manuscript and then start the next one the very same day to meet his daily word count, but I’m not sure what his secret was. I tend to lose a lot of momentum when I’m moving from working on one story to another.

I’ve been able to keep a bit of momentum in drips and trickles. My sister and I are editing on Google Drive, so on lunch break at work, for instance, I’m able to log in for a few minutes to reread pages, catch up on my sister’s edits, or even break new ground. But on the few open evenings where I’ve tried to meet my usual word count (1,200 edited words, or 600 drafted words, or a mix of both where drafted words count double edited words), it hasn’t gone particularly well. I don’t believe in writer’s block per se, but when I’ve been out of a project for a while, I can spend a long time staring at the computer screen, feeling completely frozen. What if what I add to the manuscript is rubbish? What if I make it worse rather than better? It’s probably never going to get published anyway.

(This is, incidentally, why I use a word count rather than a time allotment. When I’m on a timer, I can flit endlessly from one website to another “researching” for world building instead of keying one word after another into my manuscript.)

Even sitting down to write this blog post yesterday seemed unusually daunting. I try to keep posts to 500 words or less, and it’s intentionally a space where I don’t think too hard about my style or sentence construction, where I can ease up on the perfectionism I usually bring to my prose when I’m working on my fiction. I even keep a list of potential post ideas, and I scrolled through them without interest, looked at some of my previous posts for context, wondered if I should just not write a post this weekend because I’m tired and who’s counting anyway?

My summer is going to get a lot quieter moving forward, and I’m looking forward to getting into a more regular writing rhythm. I’m expecting some evenings where I think my writing is crap, and I’m sending whiny texts to my sister about how hard editing is, and I’m thinking about how much nicer it sounds to sit down with Trapped season 2 and a mug of herbal tea instead of reaching my word count.

But I’ve been around this block many times before. I know the writing will get easier and feel more natural once I’ve stuck with it long enough.

Speeding Dating for Authors and Editors

I was at Carol Kent’s Speak Up conference this weekend, team teaching a session on storytelling in nonfiction with my fellow editor Janyre Tromp and taking one-on-one appointments with writers and speakers.

One-on-ones at writers conferences are a strange beast, and more than one person I met with commented on the format at the end of their appointments. Basically the writer or speaker has fifteen minutes to explain their project, tell me what gap it fills in the market, and describe why they have the expertise and platform to write the manuscript and reach lots of readers. This isn’t the first conference where I’ve felt like I’m getting paid to speed date with authors. In an hour, I’ve talked to four people who have pitched me everything from trauma memoirs to soul-and-body fitness manuals to anxiety and depression workbooks to how-to texts for starting your own Red Tent events.

I’m highly introverted, so I can be ambivalent about meeting new people, and mingling over breaks or meals at conferences isn’t my jam. But there’s something about one-on-ones that works for me, probably because they’re carefully regimented and I know what to expect. Writers are always passionate about their projects, so they bring a lot of energy to the appointment and it’s easy to kickstart the conversation.

I also enjoy the work of diagnosing where they are and helping them figure out next steps. In some cases this is obvious: they have their elevator pitch down, they have an agent representing them, they have the proposal all ready to go. If it fits with my publishing house, I simply have to hand them my card and ask them to ask their agent to send me the proposal. (Incidentally, I talked with several authors whose agent was sitting across the hall from me taking appointments as well, so I could just point and say, “Tell him to send me your proposal.”)

For other authors, next steps might not be so straightforward. Maybe I really like their project, they’ve written a few chapters, and their proposal is almost ready—but it doesn’t fit with the publishing plan of the house I work for. If I really like the project, I may encourage them to tweak the material so it would fit with my house. Or I may direct them toward other publishers that are better equipped for their genre and topic.

Other authors may have an agent and a few books under their belt, but they’re developing a new project and proposal, and they’re trying to get a feel from editors if the topic and hook will resonant in the market. These appointments can turn into brainstorming sessions: How is your book different from Book X that’s already been published? Why are you bringing these different topics/themes together? Have you considered structuring your table of contents this way?

New writers can be especially fun to work with because there are so many possibilities. They’ve begun writing a memoir, but they’ve wondered about turning it into a nonfiction book on Topic Y. They have a passion for Z, and they’re thinking about starting a blog or creating professional social media accounts. They want to write a book, but they’re not sure where to start. These conversations can be a little less concrete as we talk through what they want to accomplish with their writing and who they want to write to.

Whoever I’m meeting for a one-on-one at a writers conference, though, I’m sure to hear an interesting book idea and often the personal story that inspired it.

Editing Your Garden

I’ve fallen down another British reality TV rabbit hole. This time started innocently enough when I got food poisoning, was flat on the couch for a couple of days, and wanted something cozy to watch on Netflix. Monty Don’s Italian Gardens seemed like just the ticket. If you don’t know Monty Don, he is a tweedy British gardener who can always see a positive side and firmly believes that gardening can change the world. After binging on his Italian Gardens, I may have watched his French Gardens series, then Paradise Gardens (Middle East), and then Japanese Gardens.

Now I’m watching Big Dreams, Small Spaces, a fixer-upper show where every episode, two British households with rundown, neglected garden spaces spend nine months transforming their yards into their dream gardens. They always start with grandiose ideas—or drawn plans, if they’re more type A—and throughout the year Monty Don visits them to advise, teach, and get his hands dirty transplanting roses, lining ponds, and cutting back brush. The show is always edited for maximum drama, so you never know if they’re really going to pull off their dream garden until Monty Don’s final, celebratory visit, when friends and neighbors inevitably come over for a cookout or drinks.

A lot of why I watch the show, obviously, is because the planting and gardens are lovely, and I get that proxy rush from watching other people work for their dreams, and I’m a Romantic (capital R) sucker for outdoorsy, earthy things. But I’ve also realized there’s something enjoyable and encouraging about watching another creative process that isn’t writing. Of course perfect correlations between different art forms don’t exist, but for years I’ve learned things about my own writing process from talking with my brother about his hours in practice rooms working on piano repertoire. Watching the planning, landscaping, and planting of a garden feels similarly enlightening.

Monty visits both households three times during each episode. Usually on the first visit, the couple shares their dream for the garden, and Monty gives broad, structural feedback: That’s a lot of different kind of plants, that might look busy. Have you thought about digging out that feature of your garden because it doesn’t fit with your theme? On the second visit, Monty hopes that the hard landscaping is done, and he can help the participants with a specific feature of the garden, say vertical gardening with strawberry plants or how to get moss to grow on new surfaces. He also sends each couple to a garden that specializes in something they want to incorporate in their own garden.

Watching the show as an editor, what I see Monty doing is “editing” their plans and gardens (he even uses the word editing) in two passes—not unlike the two rounds of structural and copy editing we do at my publishing house. Monty also gives technical expertise and encourages lots of research. If the participants don’t know exactly which plants they want and whether they will work with their soil and climate, the hopeful gardens will spend a lot of fruitless time and expense on something that won’t grow or won’t look good. As a planner (rather than a pantser), I of course agree.

But, okay, yes, I also just watch the show because it’s feel-good.