The Truth of the Matter: The Give and Take of Writing as a Job

Jan 5, 2017

Here's the truth of the matter: I have not written consistently for well over a year.

This doesn't mean I haven't written. I've written whenever I darn well pleased. Which was sometimes every day for weeks. And sometimes once every other month. At first, I felt guilty. Real writers write every day, they say. They write when they don't feel like it. They don't wait for the muse, they just put the butt in the chair and go, every day, because it's a job.

I call bull****.

Because here's another truth. Yes, if you want to be published-- if you are published-- treating writing like a job is necessary. I'm not going to say you shouldn't follow this advice. I'm saying I shouldn't have followed this advice, at least not to the letter of the law.

While writing my last book, I was dealing with some pretty heavy stuff-- some very serious anxiety and depression. I was still learning to live a new life with an auto-immune disorder diagnosis. I had two kids and a husband in school and working, who was also struggling with depression. I was doing school visits and library visits and conferences to promote my first book.

But I had to get that book written. I HAD TO. It was required of me, I was a professional now, I had to put my butt in the chair. You may have heard me talk about writing that book-- honestly, it was torture. I truly hated writing that book (though I did love the story in the end).

Which may be, in the end, at least one reason why that book didn't sell. (There are many reasons, the same as why thousands of books don't sell to publishers.) It was missing something, and my agent and I both agreed after a year or so on sub that it was time to retire it. I realized later the most important thing missing from that book: heart. Passion. Me.

I was fine that that book didn't sell. Truly. But it also broke me. Not the lack of a sale, but that book itself. I was so burned out on words that I couldn't even read, let alone write, for months. Then I tinkered with a few stories again, starting with a new direction in my writing. I didn't stick with anything. I just tinkered. I played if I wanted to with one story or another, and very, very often I wanted to do everything and anything else. Even when I picked my "next book" and started focusing on it, it couldn't really be called "focus." But I have a desperate need to be creative, and my creative energy got redirected.

I bought a sewing machine and started making my own clothes-- and I loved it. Probably half of what I wear now is made by me. I made a funky dress with planets and stars on it. I made leggings with elephants on them. I made some flowery shirts. I made a purse with a dragon on it. I can express myself in a new way, and it fills me.

I took a calligraphy class. I learned to write letters in different ways, pretty ways. I started mailing handwritten letters to people, telling them what they mean to mean in simple words I can make beautiful by their form. I wrote my children poems on beautiful paper and hung them in their rooms. I can be artistic with a pen in a very visual way, and it fills me.

I had a baby. I had her with no pain medication, because I wanted to be fully present in the final moments of bringing her into the world. It was a moving experience that truly brought home to me the awe and power of creating that most incredible of things-- a human being. She is joyful and into everything and shrieks with delight if her siblings so much as make farting noises at her, and after ten months is finally starting to nap with semi-certainty. I watch her working to create herself in this world I brought her into, and it fills me.

After many, many, many months of this, I woke up one morning, sat down at my computer, and poured out 2,000 words on that "next book." And I was excited about them. I loved writing them. I couldn't wait to write more. Suddenly, I was back, I was writer-Shallee again, eager to pour out words, anxious to tell a story, dreaming up scenes while doing the dishes.

Because here's the truth of the matter: I had let writing drain me, rather than fill me. And it drained me so thoroughly, I had to find other ways to fill me back up and make me human again. Now that I'm full, writing is giving back to me again, and so I'm overflowing.

Whether you're an old pro, a new pro, wanting to be a pro, or anything else, don't let the writing drain you. (I'm talking about the writing, here-- publishing is a whoooooole 'nother story that doesn't give back nearly as much as you'd think it does.) There are times when you have to write every day, maybe even all day, no matter what, for the business end of things. Maybe that's now. There are people who thrive on treating writing like a 9 to 5 job every day for the rest of their life. Maybe that's you. That's great. But if your way of treating it like a job is to write once a week for six hours, once a day for half an hour, or anything else, that's great too. Plan it out. Know what you need and how you function as a writer, know what the job requires of you, and make a plan that fits you and still gets the work done.

The great thing about writing as a job is that it's flexible-- whatever works for you, however you get your words on paper consistently, that's how you treat it like a job. So some days I'm writing 2k+ words. Some days I'm squeezing in 600 because it's all I can manage while the baby screams and tugs my pants because she's a napless demon that day. I am actually writing every day (or almost) right now, because I'm so excited about this story. But I've decided I will never let writing take so much from me again. That's not the kind of career I want, and it's not the kind of stories I want to share.

Writing isn't a typical day job, even if you make it your day job. That's what makes it wonderful and frustrating. It's a completely individual thing, and you will find your completely individual way of doing it. As you figure that out-- or maybe you're far ahead of me and had this figured out long ago--don't lose yourself to it. Whether it be entertainment, peace, questions, challenges, or any number of other things, stories should always give something to people.

Including you.

Salt Lake Comic Con 2016

Aug 31, 2016

I'm off to Salt Lake Comic Con today. Shout out to me if you're going to be there too! Here's my panel schedule, so if you'll be there pop by to say hi and grab some free swag from THE UNHAPPENING OF GENESIS LEE!

Thursday: 2 PM The Bard in the Stars: Shakespeare and Star Trek, Room 150G

Paul Draper
Angie Lofthouse
Shallee McArthur
J. Christopher Thompson
M. Brooke Wilkins

Friday: 12 PM How to Clean Blood from the Trunk and Other Writerly Google Searches, Room 255B

Shannen Camp
Michaelbrent Collings
Angela Corbett
Shallee McArthur
Frank Morin
Craig Nybo
Doug Wagner

Saturday: 11 AM Star Trek at 50: The Science of Star Trek, Room 151G

Paul Gibbs
Shallee McArthur
Larry Nemecek
William Niedermeyer
Blake Smith
Eric Swedin

3 PM: 3,2,1, Let's Jam! The Music and Brilliance of Cowboy Bebop, Room 255C

Michael Bacera
Kelby LeNorman
Shallee McArthur
Tommy Milagro
Charity O'Haodagain
Aaron Lee Yeager

Breaking the Laws of Nature: Writers as Wizard-Gods of Storytelling (or, This is Why Writing is Hard)

Jul 6, 2015

Here’s the truth: writing is hard.

That first draft you're writing? Hard.

The revisions you're pounding through? Hard.

The creation of characters, the building of a plot, the painting of the setting? Hard, hard, hard.

But here’s the other truth about writing: creating something out of nothing is technically against the laws of physics. It should be so hard it’s impossible, and here you are, DOING IT ANYWAY.

You started with blank pages. Empty nothing on a computer screen or notebook page. And you filled it. You put together words into sentences into paragraphs into pages that are forming a story. You are creating that story out of nothing. You are breaking the natural laws of the universe in order to add your story to it.

You tricky devil, you.

With every word you put on the page, you are making something new. Something purely yours. Out of the nothing of a blank page, you are making people, even entire worlds. Do you realize how powerful you are as you write? Creation is the realm of gods and geniuses. You are a wizard-god of storytelling.

It doesn’t have to be brilliant. It doesn’t even have to be good. It only has to be new. It only has to come from you. That is what makes it powerful. That is what makes you powerful. You are fighting the very universe to create something out of nothing, like some kind of renegade warrior god with words as your weapons.

So, yeah, it’s hard.

But just look at the worlds you’re adding to the cosmos.

For the Times When You Want to Give Up on Writing

May 27, 2015

It's one of the most common questions to writers. Why do you write? ask fellow writers and confused family members and school children and crit partners and fans and random people on the internet. People write blog posts and have Twitter conversations about it. We try to explain it to family members who don't quite get why we spend so much time cross-eyed in front of a computer.

One of the most common answers to that question is, "I can't not write!"There's something inside us that drives us to tell stories and drives us crazy if we don't. It's a matter of soul. We are writers and storytellers at heart, and we can't ignore our heart.

Well. Yes. And no.

I've been writing literally since I could hold a pen. Pages and pages of circles on lined paper before I could form letters, and pages and pages of cat and unicorn and alien stories after I could make words. I have always written, always read, always loved stories. It truly is a part of who I am, a part of my soul that tugs at me. I understand when other people say the same thing, whether they discovered that part of themselves long ago or just yesterday.

But there will come a time when you can not-write. When you want to not-write, when you won't be able to bear anything at all except not writing. I'm not talking about a few days of writer's block. I'm talking months or years.

Those are the months and years of illness, both physical and mental, both yours and loved ones'. The times of financial troubles and relationship troubles. They are the months and years of discouragement and disappointment and rejection and fear and the feeling that you've done everything right, but everything isn't doing right by you. They are the months and years that drain you and wear on you and you just want a break. You want to do anything but put words on the page. That soul that craved writing so much has lost its voice, and it isn't calling out to you anymore. Writing is the hardest thing you can think of doing.

That's when what really matters is that you choose to write.

There's a reason a story really starts at the moment a character chooses to follow the path that's been set out for them. It's because stories imitate life, and in life, it's the choice that matters. It's a moment when we take ownership of a thing. We pick it up and say, this is mine. I will do this. There's a power in that, in openly acknowledging how much this thing matters to us. We're not just being pulled along by the whimsy of a soul anymore. We chose to follow the path that soul is giving us. And when the fire in our soul sputters, the choice is what gives us the power to keep following our path in the dark and the cold if we have to.

Because it gets dark and it gets cold on the writing path. But the other wonderful thing about choosing to go on anyway, is that following that path is one of the only ways to find the fire in our soul again. Instead of your soul tugging on you to keep writing, you will be the one tugging on your fallen soul until it gets back up again.

So if writing is what your soul is driving you to do, if it's the thing you really want, then choose it. This minute. Acknowledge that this is what you want, this is what means something to you, and that you will write your stories. Even if that path changes in the future, choosing this one is what will lead you there. Then when your path goes dark-- even if it's gone dark already-- you know you can keep going. You'll know how to wake your soul up when it's worn and tired.

As for me, I think I've finally gotten to the point where my writer's soul is opening its eyes again. And with the light coming back on, the path is looking beautiful.

My best writing advice: Do whatever the hell you want

Apr 18, 2015

I've been teaching a lot lately-- at school visits, at conferences, even at church. (Granted, I don't teach a lot about writing at church.) And it's made me think a lot about all the advice offered at conferences and on blog posts and from people asking "What's your best writing advice?"

Now, before I say this next part, let me make clear that none of those things are useless. In fact, they're all quite helpful and I myself wouldn't even have a book published without them. But if it comes down to my BEST writing advice, the thing I wish EVERYONE knew about writing, I've decided that it would be this:

Do whatever the hell you want.

I'm not really much of a swearing person, except when I feel it's necessary for emphasis. And this idea needs EMPHASIS. Because people toss around this idea a lot and I feel like no one ever listens (or at least I didn't). When I was eagerly asking agents on panels what trends were big and they always mentioned this idea-- "Write what you want, not what's popular!"-- I would nod and ignore it. Not totally ignore it. But I wasn't really listening.

And then I went through a writing panic after my first book got published. I started at least three different books, and trashed all of them because they weren't good enough, or I wasn't good enough, or they weren't marketable, or they wouldn't be what readers wanted. Eventually, I forced myself to pick an idea and write it to the end-- and it took three complete overhauls of the story before I got a finished draft, and I HATED that book for every word it made me wrench from my bleeding brain. (Also, I'm super proud of that book and came to love it eventually.)

But after that, and after some other things happened, and after I had an idea for a book that was totally different and a little weird and completely spectacular, I had a liberating thought.


Because life is too short, and publishing is too picky, and damn it, I just want to write what I want. And who said what I want isn't worth anything?

I want to write something I've never written before that may not mesh with my current published work and readership? DONE.

I want to break the rules of viewpoint? DONE.

I want to break the rules of science? DONE.

I want to write a freaking epic story that might be out of my league but I'm going to give it my all anyway because I'm having a total blast? DONE AND DONE, BABY.

Now, there are a couple of caveats to this free-for-all, devil-may-care attitude. Because, you see, I do want to publish books as well as write them, and I'd like readers to have an enjoyable experience when they read it. So allow me to provide two addendums (or addenda, if I want to be appropriately Latin about it) to this.

Addendum 1: It better be damn good.

Notice again the emphasis. It can't just be good. If you're doing whatever the hell you want and it's not a popular genre or following the rules, it has to be immensely better than GOOD if you want to make it fly. That means you have to work at it. Hard. For longer than you think you need to. It means you have to know the rules before you break them so you do it with purpose. I can break the rules of science, sure, but I better know what those fundamental laws are and how it would affect the world to break them, and how it's even possible to break them (it's not; I can make that part up, but it better be acknowledged in a logical way).

It needs to be so cool and incredible and so well-written that your readers are losing more socks than a clothes dryer because you've blown all those socks off. So really, another way to phrase this addendum is WORK REALLY DAMN HARD.

Addendum 2: Know the limitations and be willing to accept them.

You want to write about fairy zombies on an alien world who use magical pollen to make their spacecraft fly so they can invade Earth? DO IT. But recognize that in doing so, there are limitations. You can make that thing the best-written novel in the history of the world that makes even serial killers cry, but accept the fact that the marketing team may wipe their tears and stamp REJECTED on it anyway. Because that's the fact of things. There are limitations to the traditional publishing world, and you can whine and moan, but it is what it is and you have to be able to accept that a Big 5 publisher might not take a risk on a book premise that sounds like it's waiting for a punchline to be delivered.

So you choose to indie publish. Great. DO IT. But accept the realities of that world too. Accept that it's crowded, and you may have to put money in for a good edit and cover, and all the things that come along with that path.

Do what you want, but do it with eyes wide open. Just because you're doing what you want doesn't mean you'll get what you want out of it. That's not the point, anyway. The point is finding joy in the doing. As Brandon Sanderson said at the Teen Author Boot Camp conference I just taught at, "The book is not the product of your writing. YOU are the product of your writing."

So there it is. After all the blog posts and books and college classes and conferences, this is the best writing advice I've got. Do whatever the hell you want, my friends, and revel in the joy of it. I'm going to go do that now, too.

One of Those Days: Multiple Sclerosis Awareness Month

Mar 18, 2015

I woke up this morning, and my legs weren't working right.

For the last two years, ever since I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, I've had a morning routine that starts with laying in bed and calculating the feeling in each part of my body. Sometimes it stops with, "I slept nine hours and still feel like a zombie. Yup, it's gonna be one of those days." This morning, it stopped at, "Well, my quads feel like I've run a marathon. One of those days."

I never know when it's going to be one of those days. I never know how long those days are going to last. Sometimes those days won't hit until 2 in the afternoon. Sometimes those days only last a few hours. Other times, those days stretch on until I finally concede that it's a full relapse and I need to call the doctor and set up another round of 3-4 day IV steroids.

Those days mean I'm going to be in PJs all day, and so are my kids. It means the dishes and the laundry won't get done, and neither will the writing. Those days mean movies and no makeup and cereal for dinner. My kids actually don't seem to mind-- as long as we have marshmallow cereal in the cupboard.

Those days mean feeling guilty for what I can't get done, and for having to tell my son I can't have a light saber battle right now because remember how mommy has that disease? Those days mean simmering anger that my body is crapping out on me and it's really damn unfair that I'm too tired to even do simple, everyday things. Those days mean there's a heavy, fearful pressure in my chest, because my body really is crapping out on me, and there's no telling if this is the relapse that might leave permanent serious damage. Damage that leaves my fingers numb and forever fumbling on piano keys and my computer keyboard. Damage that leaves my legs shaky all day every day, unable to support my body so that my cane becomes a permanent feature that I have to use all the time.

I hate those days. Really, truly hate them for the reminder they bring. I'm only two years past my diagnosis, and two years still feels really new. I feel like I'm still adjusting--will always be adjusting--to the idea that this disease is part of me. That I can plan all I want for tomorrow, but one or two or twelve of those days might come along and change those plans.

But I'm also two years into a learning process that's teaching me that plans will always change, and adapting to change with grace is part of life. So I plan anyway, because those days? They're not the only ones I have. I'm very lucky, as MS goes. Lucky enough that most days mean I can get up and walk without thinking about how hard it is to walk. I can get dressed, play with my kids, write, and do whatever else I have planned. On those days, I almost forget I have MS.

Today, I'm sitting around and smacking my husband's shoulder when he teasingly calls me "jelly legs." I'm holding onto counter tops and walls and stair railings so I don't fall because my legs feel too weak to hold me up. I'm microwaving quesadillas for my kids' lunch, and they love it. I'll probably take a nap and then go to bed early, and nothing on my list will get done. And I'll hope really hard that tomorrow won't be another one of those days.

If it is, I'll deal with that day as it comes.

*I wrote this post several days ago, but didn't feel up to posting it. Luckily, that day was just ONE of those days, and no others followed. To learn more about multiple sclerosis, or to make a donation toward researching medications and cures, go to the Multiple Sclerosis Association of America.*

Why I Wrote a Character with a Mental Illness: because for a long time, I never knew I had one

Jan 8, 2015

When I was 19 years old and in college, I got very angry for no apparent reason, for a rather long time. I wasn’t angry about anything in particular. I hated the world, hated my major, hated my job, hated the driver in front of me on the road who wasn’t going fast enough. For months, I felt hollowed out, like I had a hole inside me filled with irrational anger that stemmed from a despair that had no source. I cried a lot, I yelled a lot, and felt very lost.

I suppose it feels a little something like this.
It was depression, but I didn’t realize that.

When I was 23, I got married, graduated college, and started my first “real” job. My entire life changed completely, and it was bewildering. Abruptly, I turned from a happy, energetic person into one who cried for no apparent reason and never wanted to leave the house. I went to bed every night for months dreading the fact I had to wake up in the morning and go to a job I despised. I hated myself for being miserable and being unable to snap myself out of it. I was heartbrokenly sure my husband hated me because he’d realized I wasn’t the girl he thought he married.

It was depression, but I didn’t realize that.

When I was 28, I had my second baby. I loved her, but I cried a lot for the first four months of her life. The burden of two children overwhelmed me, and I was filled with constant guilt and a belief that I was failing at everything. I yelled at my children all the time, and that confirmed I was a terrible mother. The tiniest thing added to my load would send me into frantic fits of panicked breaths and pounding heart. One day, driving down the road with my kids in the back seat, I looked at the gloomy world and saw no point in any of it. There was no reason for it to exist, or for me to exist in it.

It was depression and anxiety, and I pulled off the road in shock, finally realizing it.

I went to a doctor and got a diagnosis, medication, and a counselor. My depression and anxiety is cyclical, and is also affected by my Multiple Sclerosis. I recognize it when it comes back now, and have strategies for treating it. But it still unnerves me when I look back at my life, even as a teenager, and see how often I didn’t know that’s what was going on. In fact, when I started writing The Unhappening of Genesis Lee and gave my main character anxiety and panic attacks, I hadn’t reached my own realization of my mental illness yet.

Gena’s anxiety started out as a plot point. But when I recognized that it was something I dealt with too, it changed things—for me, and the book. I rewrote the moments where Gena had her panic attacks, making small changes to echo what my own felt like. That part of Gena’s character arc became so important to me. I tweaked it all the way up until my very last revision with my editor, trying my best to represent it accurately and with a strong personal connection.

Because I wanted to share my own realizations about mental illness. I wanted it to be in the book not as a plot point, but so that maybe someone who didn’t know what they were feeling—like me—might read it and recognize it. I wanted people who don’t experience mental illness to be able to read it and start to understand, even just a little, what it can be like. I wanted to show my character as a real person, someone who struggles with mental illness, but has other parts of her that are good and bad and important as well. There are things that make her strong and weak, things that make her her, and some of them are about her mental illness, and some of them aren’t.

It’s so hard to describe mental illness. Even writing this post, I feel frustrated because it doesn’t really convey the way I feel when I experience it, or how for so long I viewed the world through a kind of distorted lens and didn’t even recognize it.  I’m afraid that even in the book, I didn’t write Gena’s own experience well enough, that I didn’t communicate what it truly is.

But at least I tried, because it matters to me. And it matters to so many others.

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