That Thing Where I Draw: Masks or Filters?

I often feel like there's two Adams, and I'm always afraid one of them is a mask. Maybe both of them. I worry about a future in which I meet some of you in person -- or that one of you who DOES know me in person will notice something amiss -- and you find out one of these is a fake.

But the more I think about it, the more I think there's just one me. It's not that I'm putting on a mask; I couldn't put on an act like that for very long if it didn't come from something real inside of me. The truth is probably more like this:

Depending on how I know you, you might get a different version of me. But it's still me. Social Adam is not very social (I can hear my wife laughing). Online Adam is only social because that's the whole point of being online. My sometimes-grumpiness doesn't show up here because I filter it out (usually). In many social situations (like with scary people, new people, situations where I have to talk, situations without food or a movie, or any other time in which I cannot hide from the attention of others), my heavy filters pop up, and what you get might appear very different.

But it's all me. I swear.

Does anyone else get like this?

Books I Read: Silver Phoenix

(Note: It may appear that I'm reading books fast, because I posted a book just last week. The truth is I meant to start talking about books a while ago, but haven't gotten around to it until now. I usually only read a book a month, if I'm lucky.)

Title: Silver Phoenix
Author: Cindy Pon
Genre: YA Fantasy
Published: 2009
Content Rating: R for a scene of almost-rape, a scene of almost-sex, and many scenes of violent action.*

On the day of her (unwanted) betrothal, Ai Ling discovers a strange and frightening ability to hear the thoughts of others. When her father disappears on a trip to see the Emperor, she goes to rescue him and finds that her ability is more powerful than she thought. She has been chosen by the immortals to destroy an ancient evil that has ruled the Kingdom of Xia from the shadows for generations.

I'm sort of a sucker for Asian, or even pseudo-Asian, folklore. This book is like a YA version of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Set in ancient China, Ai Ling faces demons, makes mixed-race friends (to which I also have a soft spot, I guess), and talks to the immortals themselves. That was the most interesting part to me: the portrayal of the gods and immortals of ancient China. We just don't get enough of that in the West, and it was weird to read sometimes, but also very cool. Like watching Spirited Away.

At the same time there was something that didn't grab me as tightly as I wanted it to. (MINOR SPOILER): It may have been the idea that Ai Ling was living out someone else's destiny -- actually that of a previous incarnation. I was really curious about the character of Silver Phoenix (Ai Ling's past life) and why she did what she did, setting things up for Ai Ling. (END SPOILER)

Although it may have just been my Western mindset messing things up. Whatever it was, I'm definitely interested in a reading a sequel and staying in this world a while longer.

* I base content ratings on what a movie might be rated if the things shown in the book were shown in the movie. Please remember that ratings are subjective, and I don't always remember/notice things. If you're unsure the book is right for you, do some research so you can make your own decision.

Dealing With the Funk

Writing is hard, at least if you let other people see your work. There are three stages in particular that, for me, are harder than any others: beginnings, critiques, and rejections. I always get depressed about these, but I've learned some ways to get through them.

I talked about starting new stories before. How the new story always seem so crappy compared to the polished perfection of the one you just finished. Ideally you want to push through until you find "the zone" again, but it's not easy.

The solution that works for me is an alpha reader. The point of an alpha, as Natalie says in her own post on the subject, is "to love you no matter what and be wildly enthusiastic about your desire to write."

Don't get me wrong. An alpha doesn't blindly say, "This is awesome!" no matter what you write. That would be mildly encouraging, but it would get old, and it is not helpful. A good alpha reader encourages what you're doing right without making you feel like an idiot for doing things wrong. They see the gold that, when you're starting something new, you just can't see for yourself. They help you through the New Beginning Funk (also the Sagging Middle Funk and the Can't See How My Characters Are Going to Make it Through This Climax Funk).

An alpha reader provides a kind of critique, but you and they both know they're not reading a finished work. Beta readers (and other species of critters) are more critical than that. Sending work to a beta is like saying, "This is as good as I can make it without your help," and they respond accordingly. Sometimes harshly.

I never like getting critiques. I'm not allowed to read them in the hours before I go to bed; if I do, I don't sleep. When I do read them, I need a good hour or two of space just to get over it. Nothing puts me in the funk faster.

But getting out of the Critique Funk is even easier than the other kinds. I don't need an alpha, I just need myself. My solution is to make a plan and get to work. Nothing makes me feel good about my story faster.

Here's the tough one. Alphas see potential. Betas see things to improve. But what do you do with agents and editors who say nothing except, "This isn't for me"?

Some personalized rejections can be treated like critiques. Others are too vague ("I didn't connect with the character enough") or are simply form rejections which cannot be used to improve, no matter how much we wish they could.

Rejection Funk is much harder to deal with, but there are two things you can do: (1) send the story somewhere else and (2) write something new. I recommend both simultaneously. Hopefully by the time you run out of places to send it, the new thing will nearly ready to send on its own.

Of course there is also the time-tested solution of escape. Read a book, watch a movie, eat chocolate, get drunk... These are good, but they are not solutions in the strictest sense. They will help you feel better and can aid in emotionally preparing yourself for what needs to be done next, but eventually you have to do something. I suppose you could also give up and regret it for the rest of your life. But what fun is that?

So what about you? What are the hardest parts of dealing with writing for you, and what do you do about it?

My Writing Process

My amazing wife gives me two hours of dedicated writing time most days. One would think I could produce novels like some kind of ninja cyborg with all this time, but for some reason that never happens. As an experiment, I recorded my writing process to see if I could determine where the problem lies.

1:00 - Unplug laptop and bring it upstairs.
1:01 - Open laptop. Go to the bathroom while it wakes up.
1:03 - Wonder why laptop isn't waking up. Reboot.
1:06 - Open manuscript, writing stats, and all the other things I need to start writing.
1:10 - Start writing.
1:14 - Realize I have no idea where I was. Have to reread what I did last time.
1:16 - Well that's just terrible word choice. I can't leave that there. (Edit)
1:18 - Is that what side his eye patch was on? Let me check...
1:23 - (Reading old scene) Wow, I am a TALENTED writer. What was I doing again?
1:25 - It's been half an hour and I haven't written anything. Crap!
1:26 - Okay. (Typing) Chapter 14 - To Be Titled [enter][enter] [left-justify] Hagai... Hagai what?
1:40 - Realize my mind wandered from Hagai to Sam to the climax to my query letter to what I will say when an agent calls me to what I'll post on my blog when I get an agent...
1:48 - Realize I haven't been thinking about writing for at least 15 minutes now, and the last thing I wrote was Hagai.
1:49 - Okay. Hagai peered over the ship's railing at the ocean hundreds of meters below.
1:50 - Hundreds? How high should they be. I need to look this up...
1:55 - Wow. I didn't know H.G. Wells wrote an airship novel..
2:05 - What time is it? Dang it! Okay. I'm not allowed to open my browser again.
2:06 - "Do I have to?" Hagai asked. "Can't make port with firehooks in the hull," Ren said. "Causes all manner of... of... problems? Anxiety? There's gotta be a better word than that.
2:08 - Boy, Open Office's thesaurus sucks. My real one's downstairs. Fine, I'll open my browser again just to check real quick. No Wikipedia.
2:10 - Anxiety, distress, foreboding... None of these feel right. Is this something I could make up a slang word for? What's a good metaphor for unrest?
2:15 - Hm, an e-mail...
2:25 - Crap!
2:50 - Wrote 400 words. That's good for today, yeah? Maybe I can see if any blogs have updated. You know, like a reward...
3:15 - Me: "Sorry I stayed up there late, honey." Cindy: "Oh, that's okay. How was your writing time?" Me: "Good. It was good. I think I'm getting faster."

(Note to Cindy: some events have been exaggerated for comedic effect. Please, please, please don't take away my writing time. I'm totally good for it.)

Who's Mary Sue?

If you've heard this term, then you're one step ahead (knowing is half the battle, and all that). A Mary Sue is a character that is perfect, the one that has or does cool things just because they're cool, and everybody likes them except for people who get their comeuppance in the end. Mary Sue is the author's wish fulfillment.*

Sue is most common in fan fiction. You know, where the author's character is best friends with Luke Skywalker or Jean-Luc Picard, or the author's favorite minor character becomes the star of the show (e.g. Wesley Crusher and Boba Fett).

There's nothing wrong with having a Mary Sue in these contexts; the purpose of this kind of fiction is to live out a fantasy, right? But if you're trying to get published, you want to do away with Sue. Sue is the mark of an amateur, flat, stereotypical, and -- once a reader realizes what's going on -- totally unlikable.

And I have a confession to make. I don't like making it because it's going to ruin my book for all of you, but... Sam Draper is totally a Mary Sue. He's not as bad as he could be, but: named after a pirate in my family tree, wears a cloak because it's cool, most feared pirate in history, most skilled elite soldier in history, and never loses a fight except against his rival.

Now, I'm not a terrible writer. I realized when I started Air Pirates that I had to give Sam a reason for the cloak and his fighting skills (and I did). I knew I had to make him flawed, so he's proud and bent on revenge to the point of stupidity. But Sue is still there, underlying it all.

At least he's the second character in the story. Because Hagai is totally not a Mary Sue. Hagai is everything I don't (or didn't) like about myself and then some, and he and Sam play foil to each other (in my head at least). With any luck, what Sue-ness is left can be buried deep enough that only the meanest critics will notice.

So. If you've got a character that you just LOVE, ask yourself why. Is Your Character appropriately flawed? Do they ever lose? Do other characters (who aren't jerks or villains, but are likable characters on their own) ever dislike Your Character or treat them badly? Perhaps most telling: when someone says they don't like Your Character, do you take it personally?

If you think you've got a Mary Sue, you need to cruelly examine everything about them and everything they do. Mess them up, make them fail, and ask why they are the way they are.

Who's Mary Sue in the end? It's you.**

* The term 'Mary Sue' was coined by Paula Smith in 1973, when she wrote a parody Star Trek fan-fic starring Lieutenant Mary Sue, the youngest and most-loved Lieutenant in the fleet. You can read it here. It's kinda hilarious.

** And also Steven Seagal.

Books I Read: The Book of the New Sun

The last two months of 2009 saw my to-be-read pile increase about tenfold, and I'm tearing through them as best I can. I love to read, and I figure most of you do too, so why not talk about the books we like? That's what readers do, aye?

Title: The Book of the New Sun (actually four books)
Author: Gene Wolfe
Genre: Science Fantasy
Published: 1980-83
Content Rating: R

This is a tetralogy consisting of The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor, and The Citadel of the Autarch. When MattyDub gave them to me, he said, "I don't know how to talk about Gene Wolfe with someone who hasn't read it. I'm afraid everything I say will be a spoiler." I totally get what he's saying now, but I'll do my best anyway.

BotNS is about a young man named Severian, an orphan raised and trained by the Torturers' Guild. He is exiled for the sin of giving mercy to one of the torturers' clients and travels, well... everywhere. The world is Earth, but it's dying. The sun is so dim that stars can be seen during the day, and only the area near the equator can be said to be truly warm. The Autarch, ruler of Severian's people in the south, is threatened by war in the north and rebellion led by the mysterious Vodalus. Throughout the four books, Severian gets wrapped up in basically everything.

That's about all I can say without ruining anything. This book will blow your mind. Every time you think you've got things figured out, Severian (the narrator) drops a bomb as casually as when he tells you what he had for dinner or that he sharpened and oiled his sword again. It's like watching Fight Club on a loop and being surprised every time. That was easily my favorite thing about it.

On the down side, it was a little slow at points: the beginning is hard to get into, and the story takes a few detours (esp. towards the end) that, while I'm sure had some deeper meaning I totally missed, were hard for me not to skip so I could continue the plot.

Overall, Book of the New Sun is a classic, and it's easy to see why. Gene Wolfe does things that I never knew you could do in prose. Things I'm not supposed to do as I try to get published. But he does them really, really well. It's like nothing I've ever read.

That Thing Where I Draw: Soltree Village

Life has been busy, and I haven't had time to sit down and draw. Plus (and I hate to admit this) drawing something every week stresses me out, more often than not. I may cut back from the once-a-week thing, but I'd hate to stop drawing. Anyway, giving myself more than a week to draw something means I can try some of my more ambitious ideas, instead of slapped-together Photoshop images.

But I still have old sketches to show you. This is the home of my most recent D&D character, Jakk Shadowcatcher:

Unlike most halflings, Jakk has traveled far, trading as a bounty hunter as far west as Dragon's Waste and as far east as Overwatch. But he never forgets Soltree village, where his grandfather raised him and taught him how to hunt. Even though he stays away for years at a time, he still considers it home.