“You People Are Smarter Than Me!” and Other Lessons from Running an RPG

I have a talent for jumping out of frying pans and into fires. Unsurprisingly, this means that I end up in over my head a lot—joining too many organizations because I have more passion than reason, taking on more projects than I can manage despite it being reasonable in theory, or taking on a position that I meet the qualifications for on paper but wasn’t prepared to handle.

This is how I ended up being the game master for a Lovecraft-inspired tabletop role-playing game. It was classic Gretchen, really: “Tabletop games are kind of neat, and I want to try this one out. It’s new to everyone, especially me, so I should be in charge of it. There’s no way this can go wrong.”

Long story short, there were a lot of ways that it went wrong in the space of two sessions, at least from a writing standpoint. Chief among them were two very specific things:

  1. Engineers are meticulous, crafty, and sometimes downright scary people; and
  2. I seriously underestimated the power of friendship.

I understand why these two factors gave me the biggest problems. I write fiction, blog posts, and copy for the most part: I usually have longer than seven days to research, write, and revise something. I have fairly hard and fast rules that don’t arbitrarily change on the fly, even when I’m writing fiction that deviates from reality in significant ways. In pieces that have characters, I tend to give them the freedom to do what they need to but reserve the right to prod them in the direction of the plot I’d planned without too much resistance. Finally, once it’s done, it’s done: with very few exceptions, writing something down makes it final.

It turns out that real people don’t behave the way that I expect fictional characters to on any of those fronts. Weird.

For some background information on what’s going on story-wise, it turns out that the events in H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction are based, at least in part, on experiences he had in life. An earthquake with an epicenter of 47°9’S 126°43’W (Lovecraft fans should recognize exactly what those coordinates point to) ends up destroying a few ships and some infrastructure on Pacific coasts, and after that happens creative and sensitive people begin experiencing literally and figuratively fishy nightmares. People go missing, reveal themselves as adherents of a new religious movement, get assaulted on the street, experience breaks from reality, and otherwise have their day-to-day lives dramatically altered. Our heroes, who are self-insert fiction versions of themselves in this world, experienced various forms of this weirdness that culminated in coming together for the first time to meet at our gaming table. After discussing and addressing everything strange going on in our lives in-universe, one of the group’s members discovers a video of something on the coast of California. Watching the video causes in-universe me to collapse from an apparent heart attack, and the plot took us to the hospital, where my plans proceeded to unravel in truly spectacular ways.

I’m not complaining: I love my players to bits, am a fan of what they did, and needed all the help I could get on my first proverbial rodeo. I fully expected to improvise and change course on the fly and wasn’t at all surprised that I needed to. I also knew that, in a game so grounded in reality, the historian, theater artist, neuroscientist, and three engineers I sit with once a week would have dramatically different knowledge bases from each other and from me, and that I would need to have at least loose answers to all of their questions. I can’t possibly become an expert on something that might not even come up, so I foolishly thought that going with the cursory level of knowledge I rely on to coast through rough drafts of my own writing would be sufficient.

It’s not like we were going to stick around the hospital for that long, anyway. One of the things that the game master’s guide in the book recommends is that the GM takes out their in-universe counterpart as soon as possible: this is partly to establish that the apocalypse is playing for keeps and partly so the GM isn’t playing both sides of the field or managing any more characters than they have to. I wanted to be creepy but not depressing, and I thought a suspenseful slow burn was appropriate for a Lovecraft-flavored apocalypse, so I decided that outright killing my fictional counterpart would be too much for the first session. Maybe, just maybe, knocking me into a coma would be enough. My players tend to skew pretty pragmatic (I thought), so if the hospital became a dangerous place, they’d have to make a choice between their lives and mine and ultimately sacrifice me for the good of them all; and if the hospital remained a safe place, they’d have to leave eventually, and there would be no reason beyond sentimentality to drag a comatose but otherwise ordinary writer with them on their apocalypse adventure. If nothing else, the people that are familiar with RPGs would recognize what I was doing and go along with it to get the plot moving, even if they wouldn’t in real life.

This was a good plan. It was sure to work. I had obviously taken everything into account.

I knew I was in trouble when it turned out that one of my players is also a certified EMT.

…And that the group’s response to a dangerous situation that they don’t know the details of is not to escape from the danger, but to immediately barricade themselves into the ICU and start finding alternative uses for brooms, beds, and television sets.

…And that the engineers can make weapons and explosives out of literally anything (and while they gleefully volunteered the specifics, I’m not telling you).

…And that I would be at the table Googling objects that could be used to create a timer for a fuse, because I hadn’t quite cemented my place on any watch lists yet and because the dice said that I had to.

…And that rather than making the tough choice to leave fictional me in my seriously compromised condition in order to save themselves, they pulled out my IV, used the fluid bag as yet another bomb component, carried my unconscious body through probably about a mile of underground access tunnels, and ultimately took me to one of their houses, where I laid unconscious in bed while they decided that events had finally gotten bad enough to start drinking.

…And that they’re going to keep every NPC that they come across, including me, my husband, my improvised hospital roommate, and that creepy detective that I was positive they were going to leave behind because no one actually liked him or thought he had useful information.

So what have I learned from this experience?

That I need to let go. I’m something of a control freak when I write, and although it’s getting better precisely because of RPGs I still expected to have issues with that in the inherently improvisational and collaborative nature of what we were doing. Things don’t have to go exactly how I want them to, and, in fact, they improve with outside contributions.

That I need to know my audience. The nature of the game we’re playing is interesting in that we’re learning perhaps more than we’d ever care to about each other because of the choice to play more realistically. That’s not what I mean, though. If I’m going to ground my piece in reality, I’m going to have the scientifically-inclined thinking about everything and picking it apart. If I’m going to weave bits of Lovecraftian fiction into my plot, the guy that has every word of the canon committed to memory is going to call me on deviations. RPGs don’t make research easy, but for everything else, I need to have more than half a clue what I’m talking about.

That I have fans. I’m still trying to get used to this idea that people like me. I’m not a character in much of anything that I write these days, but when I was, I had no problem with taking myself out of the action to let other people shine. When I was feeling more self-confident, it was because I understood sacrifices of that nature to be heroic; when I was feeling more down on myself, it was because I genuinely believed I was useless and that other people believed that of me as well. With regards to being a fan of my writing, it’s hard to imagine that anything you create isn’t just going into a void where no one sees it or cares, no matter how many followers or compliments you get.

I can’t speak to how the group feels about the way I’m handling the adventure so far, and I don’t know that I would believe them if they told me they were having a great time, anyway.  But I know that they’re supportive people to the point where, at least in theory, they value my life more than they fear threats to theirs. It’s kind of heartwarming to know that my friends would do everything from argue with nurses about MRIs to literally kidnap me from the hospital if they thought it meant I would be safe, no matter how much dead weight I am to them. Hypothetical life-or-death situations probably don’t translate well to supporting my career goals, but support is support.

That I need to get started on my next session. Because they actually have a list of objectives they hope to accomplish, and I think it’s about time to throw some combat at them. I’m such a good friend.

How to Write an Homage

I’ve been reading a lot of stories written or inspired by one Howard Philips Lovecraft lately. It was only halfway intentional on my part: some of the genres I enjoy owe a lot to his contributions, so while I might not actively seek out Lovecraft-inspired fiction it happens to exist on the shelves where I look for pleasure reading, and I’ll pick up nearly anything with an interesting premise. The other part of it is that I’m going to be running a tabletop game campaign that explicitly pits the players against forces from The Call of Cthulhu and The Shadow Over Innsmouth, so I’ve been doing research on what kinds of things to throw at my players (spoiler alert: lots and lots of Deep Ones) and how to execute the plot.

The thing about Lovecraft is that he’s an extremely problematic writer. He’s infamous in literary circles for being racist and xenophobic in ways that go beyond being a product of his time, namely in that his views were more intense than those of the general population and never changed even when society around him did. While his fans might argue that his views pale in comparison to the worlds he builds, I’m not of that school of thought: when one of a writer’s recurring themes is the consequences of “tainted blood” on a character’s life that makes him less than the white English man that he believed himself to be, you can’t separate his views on race from the philosophy of the worlds in which his fiction exists.

This is why it’s so difficult to find a high-quality adaptation of any of Lovecraft’s work. Modern writers that are sensitive to the controversy surrounding Lovecraft, at least in my experience, either apologize for it so obviously that they pull you out of the story to present you with short essays on the topic; or, like the otherworldly creatures Lovecraft writes that are too horrible to describe in words, they completely ignore it and hope you won’t ask questions. Lovecraft-inspired pieces tend to only look at Call of Cthulhu and therefore feature a lot of tentacles, creepy cultists, insane people, and… that’s it. There’s not a whole lot to Lovecraft if you ignore the themes that make him so uncomfortable for modern readers.

Sure, tentacles are viscerally unsettling, cults are always in style, and we can’t get over stigmatizing people with mental illnesses even though we should, but without any of Lovecraft’s common themes the derivative works are so shallow. Creatures having influence over humanity can be done creepily and well, but it becomes horrifying in a different, uncomfortable way when you remember that the original author literally thought of other humans as “beasts” simply for not being white and English. Having something scandalous in your background might make an interesting twist, but having the “scandal” be a different race and/or ethnicity is a massive problem, not to mention outdated. It’s horrifying to think of life being threatened by forces that we can’t understand, but Lovecraft’s apocalypses were flavored with a fear of social and scientific progress that would allow “inferior” groups of people to upset the status quo.

So what’s a fan of Cthulhu that wants to write a Lovecraft-inspired novel do to? Ignoring the bad things about the man makes the work shallow, but outright embracing them is bad for a number of reasons. How are you supposed to write a quality derivative work?

You could do what Matt Ruff did in his novel Lovecraft Country. I mentioned it on the blog not too long ago, but I do want to talk more about how the novel works as homage.

I have yet to see a tribute to another writer that does what Ruff did for Lovecraft. He demonstrates an awareness of Lovecraft’s common themes, even the unsavory ones, that makes it very clear that he reads and loves the work: fear of “others,” inherited “impurities,” the dangers of religion and science, and things man wasn’t meant to know or comprehend are all present and accounted for. However, he acknowledges that despite the good that Lovecraft has to offer, there are still flaws, and while there’s no use in hiding from them a modern writer can do better.

He does this by setting the events of the story in the Jim Crow United States and featuring black protagonists. This allows him to address and deconstruct the themes from more than one front: he melds the racist mindset of the U.S. at that time with themes and elements from Lovecraft in order to tell the story about his characters fighting against threatening “others.” The big difference is that the narrative is turned on its head, featuring characters that Lovecraft himself would have reviled in sympathetic and heroic roles. It was immaculately put together, serves as one of the most satisfying “updates” of Lovecraft I’ve seen to date, and is arguably far more interesting than the original because the threats are way more human than alien (there is a pretty heavy supernatural bent to the plot, but the actual terror and horror were closer to home).

It’s a great novel that I recommend for American history buffs with a taste for weird and horror fiction. I also think it’s a good one for writers to pick up to see what homage can and should do. You can’t accurately call something a tribute if it’s a regurgitation or heavy edit of the source material: no matter what influences it has, it’s still your work and your voice. Imitation might have a reputation for being flattering, but a nearly direct copy is just that: it’s a copy. A tribute needs to create something new and different from the thing that it loves. Look at the themes through a different lens, pick them apart, and give them back in new, different, and exciting ways.

When you remodel your living room, you don’t just paint over that weird spot on the wall, vacuum, and move the furniture a few feet: you knock down a wall to open the place up a bit, get new furniture, and paint the walls a totally different color. The function of the room has not changed, and while it might be dusty and difficult to get there it will be a net improvement overall. You can stay faithful to the original thing that you loved, whether it was the parties you threw in your living room or the author that influenced you to become the writer you are today, but it can’t really be a different thing until you take the steps to make it really, truly yours.

On Writing and Representation

The publishing world has been talking a lot about representation and diversity recently. It’s a movement that I’m all for: we need more #OwnVoices authors producing content and a greater variety of characters in our stories. This is the perfect time for change in the industry, and every day I see literary agents on Twitter seeking these stories and authors as well as hosting conversations about who is sitting behind the desks at publishing houses. It’s not just a matter of appearing in more stories, though: it’s about having a variety of people being able to do more in fiction.

Consider what I remember from most of the fiction I read, watched, or played as a kid:

  • Boys got to be heroes. Girls were there to be annoying sisters, cootie vectors, sidekicks, damsels to rescue, or prizes to win. Sometimes the girl character could be smarter than the boys, but the boys still did cooler things. I was never explicitly told that girls couldn’t be heroes, but the default for hero was “boy.”
  • Books with black and brown faces on the covers were historical stories about slavery or the Civil Rights Movement. Those that weren’t were about inner-city gang violence. Black and brown faces just weren’t attached to simple adventure stories: their stories were always grounded in reality and bittersweet if not outright painful. I noticed that these were the books that won awards, but also that they were sad or had content that was often considered too mature for me. As a result, most of the characters I read about, male or female, were white.
  • Boys were boys, girls were girls, and boys and girls liked each other and got married. Even tomboys would get girly makeovers so that boys would like them. Again, this isn’t something that was actively enforced in my home life, but I did internalize a lot of it from the media I consumed as well as my peers, who grew up in the same fairly conservative area that I did. There wasn’t a lot of “controversial” media available in my public schools, so I didn’t read many books with LGBTQIA protagonists when I was young: when I see these characters now, they’re either in the background of someone else’s story or their entire narrative arc is a coming-out story grounded in reality.

I’m not saying that these kinds of stories aren’t important or good, because they are. I’m also not saying that I never experienced fiction to the contrary or that my family didn’t try to help me open my mind to differences, because they did. I’m just saying that, when I was younger, there wasn’t much variety in who I read about or the stories that were told, and there was very little room to ask questions or broaden my horizons. The media we consume as children is one of the first places that we learn about people who are different from us, and it shapes how visible certain communities are and how they’re perceived: it’s important to get that kind of education started early.

Going away to college was a shock for me in more ways than one. I hate change as it is, but I was away from the area I grew up in for the first time. While I realized it on a conceptual level, it didn’t really hit me that people who had experiences outside of my own existed. I had a lot of learning to do. I’m far from perfect and still as privileged as ever, but I’d like to think that my mind opened up some.

In fact, my mind opened enough that after I graduated, I questioned the “default” that I had settled into and was content with.

About two years ago, I realized that I’m asexual. Before we go any further with this, no, you’re not going to get details about my bedroom life: most of you are strangers, and besides, my mother reads my posts. My experiences are my own and do not reflect some master “asexual experience,” although my self-discovery was prompted by reading and recognizing myself in the stories of others. I do not consider myself to be a representative of the asexual community, let alone the LGBTQIA community at large. While I try to be an ally, I am not a fair judge of my impact: that title is for someone in the community to bestow on me, not something that I can claim for myself.

I won’t pretend that my journey was full of pain or angst. In fact, I spent most of that time completely oblivious, which not everyone gets the luxury of being. What’s more is that I’m what’s called heteroromantic, meaning that I’m what I’ve been known to call “functionally straight”: I like men, but would shrug and walk away if one was naked and willing in front of me. More accurately, I would assume that I’d walked in on someone else’s private affair, shield my eyes, shout something along the lines of “OH GOD, I’M SORRY!” and not be able to live the experience down for the next decade.

My experience was supported by the “girls like boys” plots of my childhood, which is part of the reason that I literally didn’t realize I wasn’t technically straight until after I was out of school. Most of my crushes were genuine (Rupert Grint, I’m sorry, but I arbitrarily picked you because everyone else had claimed Daniel Radcliffe and I wanted to be a part of playground conversations about our future Harry Potter husbands) and on masculine people, but in hindsight, I seemed to experience them differently than the majority of straight girls. Where I saw them talk about guys being “hot” (I still have no idea what that means, by the way) and wanting to have their way with them under stairwells, in janitor’s closets, or in auxiliary gymnasiums, I experienced boys as being “cute,” was drawn to their personalities, and wanted to hold hands, have conversations, and watch movies with them, possibly with cuddling if we were serious. The idea of anything beyond kissing seemed gross in a “cooties” kind of way, which made perfect sense when I was a kid. However, the feeling persisted into my teenage years and adulthood: I didn’t really talk about it, and it wasn’t addressed as being abnormal, so I went with it.

Part of this was the area I grew up in. It was conservative enough that gay and transgender people just didn’t exist: while a few people in my social circles came out as I was getting to the end of high school, and I was (and am!) perfectly fine with it, I wasn’t aware that transgender was something you could even be until after I spent a year or two at college. Our district’s sex ed program was abstinence-only to the point where I didn’t know what a condom was, let alone what one looked like or how to use it, until I was a freshman in college. In fact, the only things I remember from that class were that sex was how you got pregnant and got STDs (but I never saw a slide show with horrifying pictures) and a demonstration of chewed Oreos spit into cups of water that was supposed to be a metaphor for having multiple sexual partners. Intercourse was a simple matter of “don’t do it unless it’s with your opposite-sex spouse,” and I didn’t question it because I never felt the urge to experiment. In fact, and regrettably, I took my lack of desire for sexual contact as evidence that I was somehow morally and even intellectually superior to my peers. I know, that’s very mature of teenage me, but what other conclusion was I supposed to jump to? People knew about the consequences of sex and still did it. Shouldn’t they know better? I did.

Not even encounters with other asexual people helped me figure it out. One boy I developed a crush on turned me down (far more gracefully than any man before or since, for what it’s worth) by citing asexuality as his orientation. At the time, I conflated asexuality with aromanticism, which, again, didn’t line up with my experience: I wasn’t interested in sex, either, but I was interested in relationships. My friend and eventual college roommate was also asexual and, for the most part, uninterested in relationships. It wasn’t until later my senior year when she started casually seeing someone that it occurred to me that maybe sex and romance were different (yes, I know now that orientations can be fluid, but baby steps, people).

With the chunk of time I had after college was over, I started my serious reading and soul-searching. I toyed with the labels “demisexual” and “gray-ace” to continue holding onto the illusion that I was “normal,” but ultimately gave them up with enough reading. I came out as asexual to my then-fiancé, who was fine with it (reader, I married him); a few months later, I came out to my Facebook friends; and finally, I came out to my immediate family on Coming Out Day 2015 (despite knowing I would be supported, this was still the most challenging part).

So what does all of this have to do with representation? Again, I stress that I have a lot of privilege: I’m white, cisgender, able-bodied, financially secure, and “straight-passing” with a white, cisgender, able-bodied, financially secure, masculine partner. In fact, I’m privileged in ways that I personally feel disqualify me from being considered an underrepresented voice, and I’m not here to claim that I should be considered one (which is why I haven’t tried to sell myself as an “asexual author”). The thing was that I wasn’t aware of any of these facets of myself until I broadened my horizons after high school: I didn’t see myself, so I just didn’t know.

Seeing a variety of people in the media you consume can help you find yourself among them, reassure you that your normal is valid, and allow you to feel less alone, especially if you’re a child or young adult that’s starting to make realizations about yourself that make you feel alone. Again, I stress that my life wasn’t full of pain because I didn’t know about my asexuality, and with very few exceptions I don’t think my cluelessness would have hurt anyone I’d never found out. But for someone who needs to see themselves to make sense of their place in the world, representation is everything.

But it’s not just about being there. It’s about making sure that the stories that people get aren’t just reinforcing what they already know, using stereotypes, or making them into two-dimensional plot devices. Everyone can go on adventures; everyone can get broken hearts; everyone can save the world; and, above all else, everyone is the protagonist in their own life story. Your identity plays a big part in how you interact with the world and the things that happen to you, but there’s more to you than that.

Give me more stories like Welcome to Night Vale, which canonically and famously has a gay relationship (with a Latino partner portrayed by Dylan Marron, to boot) but is about this weird and often terrifying little town somewhere in the desert and the community radio station keeping them informed.

I want another Lovecraft Country, which turns the tropes and themes of a racist and xenophobic author on their heads and acknowledges the reality of the Jim Crow social climate while still being a phenomenally-crafted story with excellent characters.

You already know that I love The Girl with Ghost Eyes, but it deserves mentioning again. Look at history and culture, stay faithful to it, and weave it into one of the most exhilarating fantasy stories I’ve ever experienced.

Think you can’t change up genre fiction? Think again. Put someone different at the helm. Bring Me Flesh, I’ll Bring Hell pleasantly surprised me by featuring (stay with me, please) a zombie detective protagonist whose condition is treated in-universe as a debilitating chronic illness. Just giving what would otherwise be a fairly typical noir detective character, complete with guns, a substance abuse problem, and an antisocial personality a condition like that was refreshing, and I want more characters like him out there in genre fiction, where they’re accessible to everyone who needs to see them.

There’s still a lot of work to be done when it comes to representation in characters and authors (including on the above list, regrettably). But there’s so much potential for new stories and new voices retelling old stories in a new way. We as readers can only benefit from it, and we as authors can do so much good by letting these voices be heard. As for me, I’ll try my best to help.

Do you have any recommendations for books or authors from underrepresented communities? Let’s hear about them!

 

An Open Letter to Writers Making Resolutions

 

Dear Writer,

 

I know you. Maybe not personally, or even in passing, but I know the kind of person you are. We’re not that different, really.

Last year, you made a resolution—or, if not one resolution, a series of smaller promises working toward an end goal. Your goal was a noble one—produce more work, start a blog, get paid, finally finish something—and you were going to be serious about it. You printed it out and taped it above the space where you do your writing. You posted about it on social media to the delight of your followers. You told your friends and family because you knew they would “keep me accountable.” You worked as hard as you could.

But then you slipped. You might know exactly when it happened, or you might have woken up one morning and realized how far you had strayed from your goals. It might have hit you out of the clear blue, or you might not have realized it until that one relative asked you how the novel was coming over hors d’oeuvres at a holiday party. You put on a brave face, laughed about how “everyone breaks their resolutions” and that there’s always next year, but still felt that sinking, guilty feeling of believing that you’d failed.

Maybe this isn’t what I’m supposed to do. If I really love writing, I should have no problem writing 500 words a day. I should be able to put out two blog posts a week. Everything I read about being a good writer says that children/day jobs/chores/hobbies/sleeping aren’t excuses, but is it really possible to balance that time?

I’m not in a position where I can give you advice. Once again, at the end of last year, I made a writing-related resolution that I tried and failed to keep. No amount of “It’s ok, everyone breaks resolutions” will ever sound sincere or even true to me, which means that I’m also not in a position where I can tell you that it’s ok without sounding like I’m regurgitating empty platitudes or making excuses for you.

In true Gretchen fashion, though, that doesn’t mean I’m not going to try.

Writing resolutions seem to revolve around fear and conquering it. Write what scares you. Lean into fear. Show off your scars. Reveal yourself, naked and bleeding, on the page. While “write what scares you” is one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received, maybe this isn’t realistic for you. Maybe you’ve been told that your story is important, that you need to get it out there, that you have the responsibility or the obligation to put your experience on the page and share it with a world that needs to hear it… but you’re not ready. It’s too raw. You’re too close. It wouldn’t be fear as much as it would be utter, gut-wrenching terror that keeps you awake at night. Writing is your way to escape your fear, and you want it to stay safe for you, at least for now. Honesty has to work both ways: write true works for the world, but be truthful to yourself about whether or not you’re ready.

Write when you don’t feel like it? A good tip for procrastinators or those people who insist that they’ll write a novel someday without making any real moves. Sitting down and actually getting words on the page is important: there’s a time for thinking, researching, listening, and talking, and there’s a time for actually doing the dirty work. There’s a lot to be said for discipline and not making excuses, but there’s also a lot to be said for simply not being able to. Chronic illnesses, stressful day jobs, searching for day jobs, grief, and a number of other life factors can leave you trying to choose between writing and physically, mentally, and/or emotionally surviving until tomorrow, and that’s ok. Not everyone can do everything all the time. Take care of yourself first.

Get published this year? You have next to no control over that in traditional publishing, which by necessity relies on other people. Even if you’re planning on self-publishing, there’s still a lot that’s outside of your control. You don’t know what the market is going to do, how readers are going to react, whether or not another writer is putting out something similar at the time, or any of a number of other things. It’s important to get out there, but doing it at the right time is just as important. It will take more than 365 days to get there, and the only thing you’re going to feel is doubt when you don’t achieve something that you’ve done close to if not literally everything that you can about. It’s easier than ever to get out there, but it’s also much easier to really mess up. If you’re going to stress about publishing, worry more about getting it right than just getting it done as soon as possible.

There are countless other tips and writer’s resolution lists out there. They all come back to this idea that borders on cognitive dissonance: there’s no easy or quick route to being a successful writer, but these resolutions are almost wholly about doing more now to get there quicker and easier.

Time is everything in our business. I think, on some level, we all know that, but it’s good to actually say it. Writing does not operate on arbitrary 365-day periods. Publishing does not operate on arbitrary 365-day periods. Humans do not operate in any way except symbolically on arbitrary 365-day periods. Trying to set a goal based on another person’s definition of success will, if it’s not authentic to you, just bring you broken promises and guilt for no good reason. If you’re someone who works well with those kinds of goals, more power to you. For those of us that see what other people are planning and doubt our abilities, though, I don’t know that punishing ourselves for perceived failures on a near-annual basis is going to help.

That said, I do have something of a resolution for you. Kind of funny, isn’t it, having just gotten done saying that other people don’t know you well enough to make resolutions for you? You can take it or leave it, but at least look at it.

Call yourself a writer, would you? None of this “aspiring writer” stuff. If you have ever put words to a page for the sheer joy of telling a story, you are a writer. If you’ve written, even if you missed a day or didn’t hit your planned word count, you are a writer. If you’ve written something, even if it’s never seen the light of day, you are a writer. If you’ve written but haven’t gotten paid for it, you are a writer. If you’re doing anything more about your craft than daydreaming, then you are a writer.

I’m not sure if it comes as a surprise, but it took me a while to publicly say this and a seemingly disproportionate amount of courage. Somehow, I didn’t feel like a writer without some kind of external validation. But taking that step toward making it true for myself was a big turning point in my career, and I think it could help you, too.

It doesn’t matter what your ultimate goals are, how much you’ve written today, or what your process looks like. The only resolution that any of us, myself included, need to make is to embrace what we do, however we do it. We have an entire year ahead of us: let’s make our writing count, instead of counting the number of things we need in order to “succeed.”

Happy New Year!

 

With love,

Gretchen

 

Top 5 Blog Posts in 2016 (and 5 of My Other Favorites)

2016 was… something else. Needless to say, a lot of us are eager for it to end and are looking to 2017 with bated breath, whether hopefully or anxiously. I’m leaving my assessment at that.

I’m not going to post next week in light of the holidays and everything that needs to get done, but I wanted to leave you with an end-of-the-year post that wasn’t New Year’s Resolution-flavored. On a whim, I thought a good idea would be to look at this site’s statistics and see where I’ve come in a little over a year.

The numbers were interesting, as it turns out. I’m probably revealing more numbers than other writers in my position would or even should, but I’m fairly proud of them, so I’m going to share. Between 2015 and 2016:

  • I published more posts (22 vs 30, not including the one you’re reading right now);
  • The number of page views more than doubled (527 to 1,070);
  • And the figure that astounds me the most: the number of visitors to the blog came short of tripling, but still got pretty close (236 to 602)

Once I was done being impressed with myself, whether deservedly or not, I took a look at what WordPress’ numbers were for individual blog posts. I was specifically curious about which posts took off and seeing what, if anything, I could learn from that information (which, admittedly, is a little biased against pieces that I wrote closer to the end of the year). It was nice to look back over everything again, and while there were some that I wasn’t surprised to see, there were a couple of posts and numbers that blindsided me.

In order from the least to most popular, here are the five posts that you guys looked at the most (all links will open in separate windows or tabs):

5. Social Media and Me (February 11, 2016)

This was one of my surprises and a case of “look how much has changed.” At this time, I had taken the latest in a series of steps toward being more serious as a writer and branched out into a few social media sites for networking purposes. This post was a reflection on how I used Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, and Instagram.

I’m still on all four of the sites, but have evolved a bit. I do about the same things on Twitter, but I’ve gotten a little more outspoken and at times even political. Not much has changed on my public Facebook or Goodreads pages. Instagram I’ve grown into: I’ve even added it to the list of social media sites that I advertise my blog posts on, which I didn’t think would work until some of those proved to be my most popular Instagram posts. As for what I use the most, Twitter is without a doubt where I do most of my posting, interacting, and mindless scrolling.

4. Bookworm Tropes and Clichés I’m Sick Of (February 17, 2016)

Another shocker for me. I can’t remember the precise event that inspired this particular rant, or if it had been building for a while, but I definitely needed to get something off of my chest. Here, I took issue with how bookworms and other literary types of people get portrayed and dissected the stereotypes accordingly.

I like my analyses and that I use anecdotal examples. While specific media instances of where particular tropes do and don’t work might have been good, I’m glad that I didn’t go that route because it might have come off as attacking particular creators, which I try to avoid. Beyond that, I still hold all of those same opinions: these five tropes still kind of irk me (and for the same reasons), and what I feel about bookworms being some of the most informed and insatiably curious groups of people still rings true to me. I would also like to add that I think we’re some of the most empathetic as well, but that point wouldn’t have worked with the tone.

3. “That Makes Me Feel Better about My Writing” (April 6, 2016)

I’m not terribly surprised to see this on the list, but I’m a little surprised that it didn’t rank higher. It actually went over pretty well with my friends on my personal Facebook page (even the ones that normally don’t interact with what I post from my blog), who were mostly curious to see how I would defend both E.L. James and Stephenie Meyer. Here, I dissect the idea of seeing a single line from someone’s novel, using it to make an assessment on your own writing abilities, and how unfair that is.

I actually consider this one of my favorite posts. I stayed as neutral as I could on both authors I talk about, which even at the time I thought was impressive because of how controversial both of them are. I stand by all of the arguments and analyses I made. I think, when I talk about the publishing industry and how difficult it is to make it, I was fair without sounding bitter. I still admire the young adult author community on Twitter and their positivity, especially in a world that increasingly needs it. I still need to work on silencing my inner critic (for myself and other writers) and focus on creating more, but I feel like every artist has that problem.

2. What Makes a Good Film Adaptation? (March 16, 2016)

At first, this one being on the list at all, let alone at number two, surprised me. It’s not that I thought it was a bad post, I just didn’t remember it standing out as particularly good. After seeing what came in the number one slot, though, and the fact that this post was riding on its chronological coattails, the numbers made more sense. This post is exactly what it sounds like: criteria that, in my opinion, make a film adaptation of a book good.

I still stand by the points that I made. I think the examples I used are good ones, even if I did get a little angrier than necessary about The Scarlet Letter and made an unfair jab at erotica writers (sorry). Beyond that, though, there’s not a whole lot to say here other than this: Wow, that was a lot of typos. Where on Earth was my editing brain that day?

1. Book Review: The Girl with Ghost Eyes by M.H. Boroson (March 9, 2016)

This wasn’t a surprise for me. I expected to see this one somewhere on my top five list, and felt fairly confident that it was going to be number one. Sure enough, it was, thanks to particularly intense engagement from both readers of the blog and social media. Boroson himself liked and shared the review; a lot of my Facebook friends liked what I had to say and appreciated the recommendation; and this post went over really well on every social media site that I had shared it on at the time and still occasionally gets likes on Goodreads.

This is another one of my favorites, and I’m still quite proud of it. The tone of the post might come off as gushing, but I had so much fun with this novel that it was hard to find anything to be critical of. If I do more book review posts in the future, I’ll probably use this post as a guideline because of how well it went over and the kinds of points that I made. Book reviews are kind of fun, especially if I can recommend what I reviewed afterward, so I hope to read another book that inspires me like this one did.

 

So those five were the posts from 2016 that have gotten the most views. The fact that they were all posted within three months of each other is strange and probably statistically significant, but I’m not the person to make that call. A couple of them absolutely deserved the honor, but there were some other posts among my personal favorites that didn’t make the list. Just because I didn’t want them left out, here are (in no particular order) five of the posts that I liked a lot that, for one reason or another, just didn’t get as many looks:

In Defense of the “Wimps” (March 23, 2016)

Outside of “What Makes a Good Film Adaptation?”, this is the only post to date where I feel that I successfully pulled off bringing in a specific example of non-book media to talk about the craft of storytelling. I liked my analyses a lot as well as the fact I was able to bring in the manuscript I had at the time, although the latter was in a bit of a mean-spirited way, in retrospect.

Formulas, Plots, and Narratives (July 13, 2016)

This managed to strike a balance between creative and analytical that I had a really fun time with. I don’t often go explicitly academic on this blog, and here I broke down archetypes and examples in literature while bringing in my own process and thoughts about the writing business. It felt like my “smartest” post, and I was very pleased with the result.

Writing Dreams (July 27, 2016)

Where “Formulas, Plots, and Narratives,” was one of my more intellectual posts, this one was much more of a heartfelt one. The fact that the post came about as a result of an interview was serendipitous, and my points were authentic and I still hold them dear. For those that were concerned about whether I got that job: I did not, but that’s ok, because my writing career has been moving forward.

Research and Real People (February 3, 2016)

I felt as though this post authentically brought in my work in progress without being heavy-handed about it or giving away too much. This post also felt, to me, like the best in terms of bringing in my thought processes while writing and researching. I’d like to be able to do more posts like this one that talk about my process, research, and work, but the stars didn’t align for it this year.

This Post Does Not Contain Spoilers (September 14, 2016)

I’m not sure if I can put my finger on any one reason why I liked this post. It was pretty fun to write; it was light, which was a nice change from some of my normal content; it made its point simply; and I stand by what I said. Between all of those factors, it stands out in my mind as a favorite.

 

Do you have a favorite post of mine? Did it make either of these lists? Feel free to talk about it in the comments!

 

I’m glad you’ve stuck with me through this year, and I hope to see you in 2017 for more posts like this (and some new and exciting ones, too)! Have a safe, happy, and healthy New Year!

I’m a Terrible Blogger (and You Might Be, Too)

That’s quite the claim. Let’s start from the beginning.

I’ve gotten a lot of practice writing blog posts, both for myself and for other people. I’ve been curating my little corner of the blogosphere for a little over a year now. With experience comes knowledge, and wow, have I learned a lot. Above all else, though, I’ve learned that I’m really bad at being a blogger.

I started this blog as a sort of website or content hub for more current writing so that anyone who comes across my name on the internet will associate it with something other than a handful of college projects and some social media profiles. In the event that I get published, this will eventually become a place to talk more about my work itself, upcoming projects and events, and other Official Author Things.

For now, though, I exist in this weird blogging limbo, and by all conventional wisdom, it’s not pretty. Here are some of the ways that, when it comes to my own blog here, I’m really terrible at this job. Maybe I’m not alone in this, but let’s find out.

I didn’t start with any ideas about my audience, niche, or focus.

I didn’t have a crystal-clear vision when I started this blog. It’s not that I didn’t think about it for a while—I toyed with different ideas before deciding on the site’s current form—but I could probably have sat back and considered it more. It’s kind of the chicken-and-egg phenomenon I alluded to earlier: I need a place to keep my writing for publication purposes, but until I get published there isn’t much I can talk about that doesn’t already exist online somewhere.

A lot of the advice out there involves focusing on a niche category and putting a spin on it so that it isn’t identical to everyone else’s site. Additionally, there’s a lot of emphasis on being an expert with something to share with an audience. Expert? Me? Not quite. I’m an expert on not being an expert, sure, and I can talk about the “behind the scenes” kind of stuff all I want, but I didn’t start with an audience in mind because I had no idea who would benefit from my kind of approach.

I wish I had started this blog after I started doing freelance work (even though the blog is what got me there), because I learned a lot about writing for audiences in that process. I learned a lot about reader personas, the imaginary but fully-developed individuals with names like “Samantha” and “Richard” who have ages, education levels, careers, and their own sets of objectives, hopes, dreams, and obstacles. I studied these people and learned how to write to them and for them so that they could enact changes in their lives. If I had thought to do the same thing for myself, I’d probably be in a different place right now.

As far as what I know about my audience? You’re predominantly Americans, and you really seem to like my posts about NaNoWriMo. If you’re here, have stuck around for a bit, and aren’t related to me by blood or marriage, I’m guessing you’re a writer or other artistic type of person in a similar boat as me: stumbling along the path to whatever “making it” means to you and wanting some confirmation that you’re not alone. Beyond the very basic demographic information that WordPress gives me, though, I don’t have a target persona that encompasses everything you collectively are.

Schedule? What schedule?

That’s not entirely true. It’s changed a couple of times in the last year, but I do have something of a loose schedule. At this point, my schedule is “Every other Wednesday, for the most part, except when it’s not,” but that’s subject to change. The reasons for “it’s not” are generally life events that took precedence over the blog, but those are not acceptable excuses in the blogging world.

The impetus behind this piece of advice is that you need to update frequently, and if you’re not dedicated or passionate enough to write about something several times a week, blogging is not for you. And really, I understand that: regular updates mean that you’re on people’s minds, that you prove that you have time management skills, and that you actually care about your content and readers. I think these are all great things for a writer to be, have, and do.

On the flip side, though, there’s also advice to know your limits and to avoid doing things that you dread. In all honesty, trying to come up with enjoyable content once a week, let alone more than once, kind of stressed me out when I was first starting out the blog. I tried to take on too much too soon, and my writing suffered for it. I started to avoid all writing because I was scared of the blog, which is the exact opposite of what was supposed to happen. So I’m working with a schedule that, for now, works for me. I could increase it to once a week in the future, but that probably won’t happen until after December ends, because this is a really busy month if you’re a musician.

I write too many words.

If you’ve been around here long enough, you know that I love my words. It’s not that I can’t stick to word count limits (because I absolutely can), it’s just that, for my personal work, I don’t like to have limits like that. It’s why I’m a prose writer and not a poet.

Conventional blogging wisdom seems to peg 500 as the word count sweet spot, although the range goes from 300 to 1,000. A lot of my freelance work for clients runs from 400 to 1,000 words with some going a twitch beyond that. My posts on this blog generally run well over 1,000 words. I do see the benefits of tightening up language to meet certain requirements, but for what I do on my site, it doesn’t feel authentic.

One thing I could stand to do more of here is search engine optimization. It’s another one of those things I got more comfortable with as I took on more freelance work, and when I started this blog I was aware of SEO as a concept, but didn’t implement it at the time. Being careful about the words that I put in, and using more effective words rather than a sheer volume of them, would probably bring more traffic.

Another thing that I learned in my proverbial freelance journey is that I write way too long of paragraphs. In the age of the internet, there’s a lot of advice about breaking up long blocks of text because they’re hard to read on computers, tablets, and phone screens. Short sentences and paragraphs are in vogue, as are bullet points and lists. You’re supposed to write for people who are reading in quiet moments in the checkout line and on their commute rather than dedicating their full time and attention to something. While I have practice with both, I just find being creative easier when I have more room to play.

How am I supposed to read this? It doesn’t even have pictures!

This is another point that I see people of conflicting opinions about. A lot of blog advice lists praise attractive images and photography for catching the reader’s eye and giving them something other than paragraphs to look at. Some posts, however, deride images as being clutter and distractions from your content, which should be the thing that people come to see.

I keep my amateur photography to Instagram, but don’t really share many images on this site. There just isn’t very much to look at when it comes to me and my process, and there are only so many pictures of my desk that I can take before someone realizes that it’s the same thing all the time. Sharing images of the things that I research would be cool to do, and probably something for you to look forward to, but not much of my research has been “field work” kind of stuff, and I’ve been hesitant to use images from other sources because copyright rules for images can get sticky.

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Case in point: This is where the vast majority of the magic happens. It’s not very remarkable. [Image: A small desk against a window with partly-closed blinds. The desk has a desktop monitor, keyboard, computer mouse, and coffee mug on it.]

I complain.

Including on this post, actually.

Most of this advice comes from a place of either “don’t air public grievances unless that’s your brand” and “don’t pick fights with people on the internet.” These pieces of advice are quick to point out that online personalities who go on rants are popular because misery loves company, but that you’ll go farther by being more of a positive influence and an inspiration to the community you seek to build.

I’d like to think that my negativity is more from a place of self-deprecation and pessimism than actual bitterness, and that this is how it comes across to my readers. I was also hoping more for an honest and authentic approach that felt more like “this is what no one tells you about how the artistic life looks for someone just starting out, so let’s commiserate about it” than angry ranting. Whether or not I’ve achieved that is up to you.

…Email list? Friends?

I’m a shy introvert that never was good about making friends or approaching people to ask them for something. I acknowledge and respond to comments here and talk with people on social media, but actually making contacts in the way that people mean when they say “networking” hasn’t been something I’ve done all that well. It’s something that I’ll start pushing more toward in the future.

According to most of the blogging advice I read while preparing for this post, I should have started a weekly e-newsletter the moment my blog went live. I didn’t do it then because I was still getting my footing and I didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of generating what would effectively be another complete post in email form. That, and I didn’t have any products to sell or events to update people on: why would I need a newsletter? After those first few months, it just became a matter of putting it off.

A one-year plan.

The thing about writing-related blogging is that your plans rely on the implementation of other plans. My plan for the future of this blog is to keep on posting every other week when I’m able, possibly bumping that back up to once a week once the holiday season wanes. I’ll probably start reaching out to other bloggers and optimizing what I already do here. I’ll work on getting the current manuscript done and sent out so that I have something to promote and talk about.

As for a timeline for that? I don’t have a clue. Writing is not an easy industry to predict, and life can always get in the way. Every time I make a schedule or a timeline, something inevitably comes up. So for the next year, I’m aiming for forward momentum and just kind of hoping I don’t fall on my face in the meantime. I’ve been told by a few friends that I’m pretty good at getting back on wagons I fall off of: whether you call that stubbornness or persistence, I know I have that on my side.

So what do I do right?

A lot of my more valuable life lessons come from my experiences as a musician. The one piece of advice that I think most applies here? “Fake it ‘til you make it.” It’s beautiful, it’s simple, and it works for everything from music to writing to adult life in general.

If you make a silly mistake, own it loudly and proudly. You’ll know that you’ve made a mistake, but no one in the audience will know unless you point it out. You might have stumbled, but if you act like it’s part of the show, it might as well be.

So I might not have done everything I was supposed to. In fact, according to the most common tips, there are very few things I even got remotely close on, let alone right. But readers, especially those of you that have stuck around for a while: would you have known any of this if I didn’t write well over 2,000 words poking fun at myself for it? Probably not, because that’s part of my voice, which is the thing you’re here for. You’re here because, for one reason or another, you want to hear what I have to say, regardless of whether it fits into a formula or checklist.

Let’s hear from some other blogging rebels.

Are you a blogger that goes against conventional wisdom? What rules have you broken? Are you going to start following them or no? Do you have any advice of your own? Feel free to share your stories in the comments!

Performers and Politicking

Buckle up, dear readers: this is the most political that I’ve gotten on the blog to date. It’s also the most that I’ve publicly discussed current events. You can’t say I didn’t warn you.

The United States has undergone some significant political upheaval this month. Regardless of where you stand on the matter of the election, we can agree on that much. A cultural upheaval came along with it, and between those two phenomena you have very passionate people being very vocal and often aggressive with each other. One common target for frustration and aggression, from both sides of the proverbial political aisle, seems to be entertainers.

Whether someone writes books, plays music, or acts, there seems to be this notion that they need to do only that much. With a few exceptions, it seems that high-profile celebrity creators can get away with speaking out about relatively politically neutral causes—starving children and planting trees are almost universally considered good as long as the associated policy or financial details are glossed over. But for moderately popular artists, or even celebrities taking stances that are more explicitly political (or that have become political in recent years), there are cries for creators to mind their own business and stick to writing/acting/playing.

I’m not sure when or where this started, but it’s not just a way that fans think. I went to a writing conference where one of the penultimate pieces of advice was to stay neutral, especially if you’re an unknown. Unless you plan on developing a brand related to politics or religion, you completely stay out of discussions on the issues. Either own it completely or don’t touch it at all.

I understand this from a business standpoint, especially as a new writer. You want to win as many people over as possible in order to build your brand and audience. Politics and religion are divisive, and if you own either as a writer without having it be a part of your brand, you’ve knocked out a significant number of people that might otherwise have given your work a chance. This neutrality is at least part of the reason why writers online (myself included), when they’re not posting pictures of their pets or food, will either only post writing tips, insights into the business side of the industry, or calls to “Buy my book!” I imagine that something similar happens in other creative industries, but my question is whether or not that should be the case.

What got me thinking about this was the appeal by the cast of the Hamilton musical to Vice President-elect Mike Pence after the November 18th, 2016 performance. Once again, there were cries for actors and writers to stick to entertaining people instead of talking about policy or social issues. Even people who didn’t support the GOP candidates in the election were quick to point out that the theater is not the place for that kind of discussion. There were suggestions to take Pence backstage and address him privately rather than make a statement at the end of the play, or else to get in touch with him in a phone call, email, or place other than the stage. There was a theme, in the comments sections that I scrolled through, that actors are there purely to entertain, and that audience members didn’t pay for what many of them called a “lecture.”

My stance on the matter? The audience didn’t pay for the lecture—it was after the show’s conclusion during the time when people would be leaving anyway, as opposed to during the show itself, when I could maybe understand having an issue with it. More than that, though, is that I’m of the belief that the stage, as well as art on the whole, is the perfect venue for such statements.

There’s historical precedent for entertainment as a means of commenting on politics and world issues. The entire purpose of a jester was to deliver bad news in a palatable way (for the jester as a political figure, the heading “The Importance of Being Jest Earnest” will be of particular interest, but the entire excerpt of Fools Are Everywhere: The Court Jester Around the World is an interesting read). The jester was not just someone that cracked jokes or told happy stories in the throne room: they were one of the only people in the kingdom with the ability to deliver news to the rulers that no one else would. They were the only people that could criticize or satirize the people that ruled over them. Sure, they were entertaining and kept people smiling while they did it, but they used what little power they had with humor, creativity, and amiability to be on the side of both the King and his subjects. Without that platform to speak out, a lot could have gone wrong.

Artists are citizens of the world and the country, too. What we see, feel, and do out in the world becomes a part of our work in one way or another. By not getting involved or engaged in one way or another, we run the risk of not being able to create the stories that inspire positive change and touch people’s lives for the better. And if we don’t care about something enough to pay attention to it, let alone speak out for it or fight for it, how can we care enough to write about it? If we’re not aware of what other people, including our fans, are experiencing or feeling, how can we reach them with our work?

I don’t have the greatest track record for being brave. I’m hesitant to even engage in online debates, let alone attend protests or political rallies. I write about people that are braver than I am and hide behind them. I took the writing conference advice about staying neutral, being delicate about my words, and hiding my views readily because it fit my personality perfectly: you probably noticed it in this post. For the longest time, though, it’s felt wrong because I know I need to fight for the things I care about. If I can’t back up what I say or write with my actions, then how good are my words really? It doesn’t matter how well I write if I’m not saying anything of value.

I’m a coward. I always have been, and that’s not going to be an easy thing to change. But I’m also working on becoming a kind of modern-day jester: one way or another, I’m going to have to find a way to use that power. It’s my responsibility to reflect the world in my work and do my part, however small, to make it better.

 

Readers, I’m thankful for you. If you’re someone that’s celebrating Thanksgiving tomorrow, have a great one. May your travels be safe, your conversations civil, and your meals delicious.