“Cammy is the perfect woman,” says Dennis Hof, owner of the Moonlite Bunny Ranch. “Cammy has a value system that comes from the fifties. We were on an airplane, and a pilot – a lady pilot – introduced herself to me. When she went back into the cockpit, Cammy said, ‘I’d rather she be serving Cokes and peanuts, and let a man be the pilot.’
“She designed her life around, ‘How can I please a man?’ She went to massage school, cooking school – she bought a book on blowjobs. I wish more girls would do that. If more girls did what Cammy’s doing… my business would go down.”
And good Lord, I am filled to brimming with revulsion.
The thing is, I’m not revulsed by Cammy’s choice. If Cammy is content living subserviently, and that makes her happy, then I say “Go, Cammy.” (Even if I suspect Cammy is perpetuating an elaborate ruse to extract cash from gullible men’s pockets. They say the best salesman never appears to be a salesman. Cammy’s probably getting exactly what she wants, from men who probably deserve it.)
But I’d never want a woman whose whole job was dedicated to pleasing me. That has nothing to do with feminism; it has everything to do with the fact that ultimately, I think humans turn into monsters when they have all of their needs met without cost.
Maybe that’s because I worked in retail – where if you’re smart, the attitude has to be, “The customer is always right.” Because you don’t want the customer to feel dumb; nothing closes a customer’s wallet quicker than, “Gee, your concerns are stupid.” And they’ll tell people how they were insulted, spreading bad tales about you wherever they go.
So when they cram your mouth full of shit, you swallow it and smile.
Working retail, eventually you come to realize that “reasonable” is determined by past history. You think it’s reasonable that a cup of good coffee is $3.95 because you grew up in a Starbucks culture… but talk to a guy who grew up in the 1950s, when coffee was an inflation-adjusted dollar at best. You think it’s reasonable that drivers will give you the finger and honk at you in traffic, because you grew up in Manhattan. You think it’s reasonable that people smoke in restaurants, because you live in Europe.
The important point: that “reasonable” creeps up, depending on what people do.
As humans, we’re bounded by other people’s reactions. And if everyone acts like you’re completely normal and wonderful, you internalize that.. even if you’re completely awful. On some level, we all think, “Well, if we get out of hand, someone will tell me I’m too much trouble.”
Remove those blocks – and sure enough, you start becoming too much trouble.
Wanna know why celebrities implode? Because they’re swaddled in a culture that caters to their every whim because they’re a non-replaceable entity, and when normal people see them it’s usually in a gawking fawningness of “Oh my God, it’s you! I’m so pleased to meet you!” So their waiters go to extra miles that no normal person would get, and when they casually ask for a Diet Coke at precisely 45 degrees with a titanium straw in it, everyone just brings it to them. Nobody notes this is actually really a pain in the ass to do for them, or if they do, they agree that oh, you absolutely need a perfectly-chilled drink.
Eventually, you come to think that this is reality. That the 45-degree Diet Coke with the titanium straw is not just you, but universal and easy to do, it’s happened a thousand times before. And then a waiter forgets and you get the wrong drink – and for the celebrity, it’s like they got brought a cup of transparent coffee with broken glass at the bottom. It’s such a stupidly-done thing that it feels like an insult. How could they not know?
So: embarrassing shitfit in a public place. And to some extent, it’s not the celebrity’s fault – it’s the fault of all these people around them, nodding and agreeing and convincing them that yes, this is the way the world is. Sure, the celebrity went off the fucking rails, but all of their PR agents and fans and entourage quietly removed the rails months ago. In some ways, it’s astounding that they kept on the right path for as long as they did.
And you see that in retail, where people think, “Oh, I’m always right! So I’ll sit in the coffee shop and slop coffee all over this magazine I have no intention of paying for, then leave it sprawled on the counter in a pile of sugar and drool.” They think, “I’m always right, so when I bring back a tattered book with no receipt and want cash for it, the clerk who’s refusing me needs a good, solid yelling.” They think, “I’m always right, so why aren’t these clerks catering to my every whim?”
And yes: you get more money from these nitwits. But you do so by catering to their dysfunction. Which means you get richer off of exploiting people’s psychological weak points. (A point I make, in a somewhat more hammer-handed way, in my story Dead Merchandise.) You actually make them a little insane – and some of them a lot insane – to harvest their cash.
So for me, having someone eager to cater to my every need makes them, in a low-grade way, the enemy of my sanity. I want people who question, who remind me of the work this took, who tell me when I’m inconveniencing them. A woman like Cammy (or at least how Cammy presents herself) would undermine the integrity of the person I’m trying to be, give me an inflated sense of self-esteem I might not deserve, slowly push me towards the land o’crazy expectations.
She’s not the perfect woman, Denis. She’s a perfect servant, perhaps. But perfect servants come with hidden costs, and I for one would be very reticent to pay them.
Long-time readers will know: May is the time my Seasonal Affective Disorder usually creeps in. For a few weeks out of the year I’ll become a sniffling pile of self-hatred, sometimes skidding as far as self-harm, weeping and curling into a ball. This misery lasts for about three to six weeks, during which in lesser moments all of my suicide attempts have arrived, and when I emerge it’s a slow crawl.
This is where the sadness usually starts to tickle. And… it hasn’t yet. Which concerns me.
The thing is, if there’s any year when I might not have my usual SAD, this would be it. I’ve had major surgery in January, which my body is still recuperating from in some minor ways. I’ve changed my diet and exercise habits. And I’m on new medications, specifically a heavy dosage of Vitamin D in order to get my cholesterol and body chemistry back to proper levels.
So is it going to arrive? Maybe. I felt very sad on Saturday but then I ate a sandwich and realized my blood sugar was low, and everything went better. I’m feeling a little low now, but is that SAD or just a reluctance to charge ahead with a tedious work day?
No clue. Until then, I’m sort of waiting for the axe to fall – maybe it’ll show up late. (It used to arrive in June.) I’m on alert, trying to be careful about how I react, so I don’t take anything too much to heart.
But once a year, I usually have to endure a time of knives and anguish. That may or may not show up this year. In some ways, waiting for it to hit is nearly as bad as the depression itself, being tensed for a blow that may never arrive. On the other hand, I’m relatively content, and finishing up my novel.
A strange place to be.
If you were to log into StarCityGames about two years back, you’d have logged in with your username. And once you’d chosen your username, you could never ever change it. If you had, in a fit of pique, chosen “SirPoopyhead” as your user name, that was what you’d have to use forever.
The reason you couldn’t change it was because of a silly choice that had been made back in the year 2000, when we’d first purchased our shopping cart software. The people who had designed that shopping cart decided to use the login name as the unique way of determining who you were – and when we’d created our own customized shopping cart, we hadn’t changed that. So for all intents and purposes, that arbitrary string of characters – “SirPoopyhead” – was the single factor that made you you.
Problem is, that’s actually terrible design.
See, on the back end of an application, we have literally hundreds of places where we store the answer to the question, “What customer did this?” What customer placed this order? What customer tried to log in at 4:56:15 am? What customer ordered a Premium subscription? What customer has $14.15 in store credit? And the answer to each of those questions, each answer stored in a separate location, was “SirPoopyhead.”
The problem is that if we changed that string of characters to, say, “SirGalahad,” then we’d have to manually change that string in every one of the hundreds of tables that referenced it. If we forgot to update just one table (or something went wrong in the middle of all these updates), then somewhere lurking in our database there would be a bunch of records that referenced the now-no-longer existing “SirPoopyhead,” which means that we’d have lost data. This could be very troubling if we were asking the question, “What customer had paid us money?” when we needed to give you a refund.
And with every new feature we added, this problem got worse. We added gift certificates, so here’s yet another place we need to store “SirPoopyhead.” We added wishlists, each of which was duly recorded under “SirPoopyhead.” Hundreds, thousands, of locations each keyed to this arbitrary string of letters.
Worse, turns out logins are a terrible idea. Customers forget their logins all the time, having made them up to check out. If their login was associated with an old email address, they might not even be able to get access to their old login without manual intervention. We literally had, in some cases, customers who’d created twelve separate accounts because they kept forgetting what their login was supposed to be.
No, what we needed was a nice clean email login like Facebook. Everybody remembers their emails. But people change their email addresses a lot – and as noted, having to constantly change “SirPoopyhead@hotmail.com” to something else had a nonzero risk of something going wrong.
What you need, as it turns out, is a unique ID to reference each customer that never changes! You! SirPoopyhead! You’re now customer #123456, and every question we’ll ever ask about you now returns the answer, “Customer #123456.” Then you can change your email, you can change your login, you can change anything you want – all we’ll be doing is looking up the information for Customer #123456.
Come this point in our shopping cart’s development, we had literally thousands of places in the code that used the login name instead of the customer ID to answer questions. And it wasn’t as simple as a “search-and-replace”; some of these were complex queries that we’d completely have to rewrite from scratch. And then, because we’re responsible website owners, we’d want to test all of these changes thoroughly to make sure nothing got broken.
Yet if we wanted to do this, we’d have to do it soon. Because we were hiring more and more programmers, and adding new features daily, each of which referenced “SirPoopyhead.” The longer we put this change off, the more places we’d have to change the code.
That’s what’s called technological debt. Thanks to a bad decision made literally twelve years ago, we had a ton of code that caused us to have to jump through a lot of hoops for what seemed like it should be a simple thing. And every month that went by without changing this sprawling, underlying code was another month’s worth of updates that would also, eventually, have to be changed.
What followed next was a tedious and gruellng five-week project where I looked through each of the hundreds of thousands of lines of code that touched literally every page on StarCityGames.com, changing instances of “login name” to “customer ID.” You cannot understand how magnificently boring this was. There are fun things a programmer can do, usually learning new techniques or doing something flashy – this was basically me, being a smart search-and-replace, doing something a computer wasn’t quite equipped to do.
When it was done, we ran some conversion scripts, and then rolled it out. Zingo! To you, the customer, the only change was that there was now a notification saying, “Please log in using your email.” But to the back end, there was literally a whole new day.
That’s why it’s sometimes hard to change software. How difficult could it be to change your user name? Well, as it turns out, thanks to factors that are hard to explain to your average customer, it can be incredibly hard – an unpleasant task requiring weeks to fix, one that adds almost no new features whatsoever, one that can introduce bugs into stable sections of code that haven’t had problems in years…. yet one that ultimately needs to get done in order to make way for bigger changes later on.
That’s why programming is weird.
My poly bureaucracy creeps slow. Very slow. This is for my wife and girlfriend’s protection, because I am a dumbass.
See, I have a tendency of assuming that emotional intimacy == compatibility. Yes, it feels wonderfully cozy that we share all of these fears and concerns and relationship patterns, and finding your most sensitive feelings reflected in someone else is a beautiful thing.
The problem is that I’m fucking crazy. So finding someone I really resonate with immediately? It usually means they’re as bad as I am, and that we’re actually going to exacerbate each others’ issues.
I’ve been known to dive head-first into relationships without checking for compatibility first, just sort of assuming that because we have A Connection it’s going to work out. Then, after months of daily fights, me wringing my hands 24/7 about WHY WON’T SHE UNDERSTAND, and an eventual slow death by slices, I’ve learned that I need to spend more time getting to know people before I start getting committed…. if only so my wife isn’t obligated to play psychotherapist for me when things turn sideways.
So there’s a six-month cooldown time in place, where we can make out but not have Teh Sexx0r… and usually that cooldown time stretches to nine months, or even a year, as we just take it slow and not rush getting permissions.
The big question is, why don’t I find this limitation confining?
Part of it is, of course, is that I chose this lifestyle. This isn’t an externally-produced ruleset, created in a process tantamount to blackmail; it’s one I helped shape, because after a series of four disastrous relationships that imploded messily across my poly web, I took an honest look and said, “Okay, that’s a bad pattern, what’s a potential fix?”
But more importantly, sex is the least important bit for me.
Don’t get me wrong; anyone who’s ever made out with me will tell you that I’m passionate as hell. But sex is something that’s common; particularly in the kink communities, it’s not particularly difficult to get. If you’re open about your desires, reasonably personable, and are sapiosexual as I am, you’ll have a lot of options.
What I can’t get elsewhere is you.
Sure, maybe I’ll spend nine months hanging out with you on our once-a-month dates, getting to know each other… but that’s the best part. For me, “getting to know people” is an activity I find desirable in and of itself. Chatting, snuggling, dining out… that’s all stuff I like. And the level of flirtation/innuendo is a beautiful spice for that.
If and when we eventually hook up, that’s gonna be a wondrous new layer to what we share, and not the entirety of it. So I’m perfectly okay waiting for that to happen, since that is far from the whole reason I’m here.
I’m in no rush.
So yeah, it’s a long time. It’s not a process I’d recommend as standard for most poly groups. But that’s the glory of poly relationships: there’s no objective set of rules. What would be insanely restrictive for one set of people is actually a wise and stabilizing force in ours, just as what would be joyous freedom for some couples would actually cause harm if I tried it at this time in my life.
But does it matter if my rules would work for you? Lemme repeat: if it’s working for you and the people you’re dating, then it’s great.
This glacial proceeding helps me to choose better partners, and keeps my wife and girlfriend happier (even as neither of them are bound by this six-month rule), and hopefully the people I’m dating in this slow process are still happy to see me even if I’m not whipping out Little Elvis yet.
It’s an approach. Because there’s no the approach. And there never will be a the approach as long as humans are varied creatures with differing needs.
Eventually, if you’re trying to make it as a writer, you’re going to despair. You can’t write well enough. This story will never sell. If you do sell it, it’ll never be popular.
This terrible feeling like you’re just wasting your time and nobody cares happens, absurdly enough, to very popular writers. It happens to nobodys. It happens to writers, period. If you’re putting words down and trying to get people to read them, there will be times you’ll want to take everything you wrote, set it on fire, and then fling yourself in to burn with it.
Here is what you do when those down days come: you write more.
Took a nasty rejection straight to the sternum? Write more.
Had a confidence-shredding bad review? Write more.
This grand story in your head is completely beyond your ability to commit it to the page? Write more.
This terrible book you’re reading made millions, and your better work can’t find a home? Write more.
Feel like you’re a fraud who’s somehow lucked out when better writers languish behind you? Write more.
Your favorite author just told you he abhorred what you wrote? Write more.
The thing about writing is that so much of it comes down to tenacity. The most popular writers in the world can all tell you about this fellow they knew when they were starting out, a colleague who could write stories that would charm the petals from a rose… and yet these natural geniuses didn’t stick with it. They either let life swamp them, or couldn’t stand the rejections, or didn’t feel like it. And these magnificently talented people never became Writers, because for whatever reason they never pushed through.
It’s not that they weren’t very good. It’s just that they stopped knocking on doors. While the writer you’ve heard of kept ringing doorbells until she got an answer.
So pushing through is what you need to do. Write when you’re sad. Write when you’re busy. Write when you’re uninspired. Write when you’re utterly consumed with the idea that you cannot do this. Learn to take all of that despondence and to transform it into beauty, for writing in the throes of despair will do two things: when you are writing sad scenes, you will have so many more emotions to cram into it, and when you are writing happy scenes, you will be forced to emulate joy. One will make for better writing, the other will elevate your mood.
The truth is, though I’ve written in both despair and elation, I can’t really tell which mood I was in when I go back to revise. You must learn to write without hope. Keep creating through those dry spells, keep sending out stories during the rejections; decouple your personal contentment from your creative muse and make that bitch dance for you. She’ll be clumsy at first, foolish… but with time, you can make her do the most elaborate pirouettes when you’re barely able to move off the couch.
In fiction, there’s often a plot sequence: Try/fail, try/fail, try/succeed. In real life, there may be a hundred try/fails before you get to that succeed. But you’ll never know unless you stay in that execution loop.
And then write more still.
(Inspired by Catherine Schaff-Stump’s Writers and Despair.)
Just discovered: I could pretty much ruin any woman’s day when she’s about to leave the house by asking, “Oh, you’re going out like that?” and then muttering that it’s fine, it’s fine.
I just said that to Erin hypothetically, and she knows I didn’t even mean it, and she’s still itching to change her clothes.
(Cue tides of women saying that they’re above that. You may thank me for making you feel superior.)
I fricking love getting my stories read at Escape Pod – the narrators there are so good, the forums so full of awesome feedback, and there’s just something beautiful about hearing words I wrote become part of an old-time radio show. So my singularity-as-horror tale “Dead Merchandise” is up – and the people at Escape Pod seem to be digging it, thus far.
In case you need a sample, it follows:
The ad-faeries danced around Sheryl, flickering cartoon holograms with fluoride-white smiles. They told her the gasoline that sloshed in the red plastic canister she held was high-octane, perfect for any vehicle, did she want to go for a drive?
She did not. That gasoline was for burning. Sheryl patted her pockets to make sure the matches were still there and kept moving forward, blinking away the videostreams. Her legs ached.
She squinted past a flurry of hair-coloring ads (“Sheryl, wash your gray away today!”), scanning the neon roads to find the breast-shaped marble dome of River Edge’s central collation unit. River’s Edge had been a sleepy Midwestern town when she was a girl, a place just big enough for a diner and a department store. Now River’s Edge had been given a mall-over like every other town — every wall lit up with billboards, colorful buildings topped with projectors to burn logos into the clouds. She was grateful for the dark patches that marked where garish shop-fronts had been bombed into ash-streaked metal tangles.
The smoke gave her hope. Others were trying to bring it all down — and if they were succeeding, maybe no one was left to stop her.
Anyway, you can listen to it here. It’s about thirty-five minutes. And another great production, but I’d expect no less from the ‘Pods.
Sometimes, you get a rare gift, but don’t recognize it for what it is.
Kitchen Nightmares is a show that specializes in dysfunction. The pattern is standard: world-renowned chef Gordon Ramsay shows up to a failing restaurant, meets some owners who are in deep denial about some aspect of their business (usually the terribly food), and yells and cajoles them until they come around. (Most of the restaurants fail within three years after Gordon’s makeovers – but then again most restaurants period close within three years, and all of these guys would have been out of business within months without Gordon’s help, so I generally consider Gordon to be a good bet.)
Now, nobody cares about the food in the American Kitchen Nightmares – it’s all about the crazy people. The owners are each uniquely bollixed – overly-proud, self-taught chefs insisting that the customers love their octopus slides, sad sacks who’ve given up after discovering that the restaurant life isn’t the easy money they thought it was, chefs claiming that pub food is Steak Wellington and wondering why their customers keep asking for burgers. The array of people in denial on Kitchen Nightmares is a fascinating microcosm in all the ways that a personality can kill a business.
But this week? They found the mother lode.
Amy’s Baking Company Bakery, Boutique, and Bistro – yes, it has all those names – had one of the most magnificent Facebook meltdowns ever after appearing on Kitchen Nightmares, and being the only business ever who Gordon Ramsay – one of the most stubborn personalities on television – actually walked away from because he couldn’t get through to them.
Amy and Samy, the owners, greeting Chef Ramsay by imploring him to help them against the “lying bloggers” who were spreading bad reviews about their restaurant. The problem was not their food – it was that they didn’t have someone like Gordon Ramsay to vouch for them. And they routinely yelled at customers, telling people who complained to fuck off, we don’t want your business, a fact both shown on television and in their customer’s reviews. They’d literally scream at someone loud enough that everyone in the joint would turn to find them.
The problem was that their “real customers” loved their food. Anyone who complained was not a “real customer.” And they both became frenzied, like snapping chihuahuas, because how could so many people misunderstand them? If they just got the word out past these local yokels, got real chefs on their side, then the world would understand. The problem was not that they were being irrational, it was that they weren’t reaching the right people.
Which is a common dysfunction. You know, if the world could see what we did, people would agree with us! The problem is you!
And hence, Amy and Samy got a very rare gift: the world saw what they did.
Hundreds of thousands of people saw them act up on Kitchen Nightmares – where, yes, it’s a show that emphasizes conflict, but at the very least they still willingly hounded customers out to the street on camera – and then watched them argue on the Internet. And in fact, pretty much nobody agreed with them. We all thought that Samy and Amy were awful people for withholding tips from their waitresses, for firing a hundred people over the course of a year, for being brittle and awful human beings.
How many people get that opportunity, really? To have their reality tested so thoroughly? Sure, you can say that folks would agree with you if they only knew the truth, but how often does that happen? They have empirical evidence now that what they’re doing is childish, alienating, and unlikable!
Of course, that opportunity doesn’t actually work. They’ll find more excuses. That’s largely what humans are: excuse-hunting machines.
But honestly, it’s a strange and beautiful test of their delusions: they got exactly what they wanted. And now they’ll manufacture reasons why it wasn’t exactly what you wanted, if things had just gone a little different then Samy and Amy would be drowning in flowers and sympathy. They’ll show they have a truly world-class psychosis, one that can withstand all of America scorning them.
I feel a little sorry for them, as I do anyone who attracts the ire of the Internet. But in this case? It’s also a fascinating look at how darned intense denial can get.
In case you haven’t heard yet, after discovering she had a gene that made it 87% likely she would get breast cancer, Angelina Jolie had a preventative double-mastectomy. And I’ve been thinking about two words that have been enraging me:
See, because, Angelina Jolie’s tits were for Brad’s entertainment, and he had ownership of the best tits in the world, and now they’re gone. This is a loss to Brad, you see. As men, we should feel sympathy for him, as expressed in a very common comment left across many news sites.
At which point I try to imagine the pain of being so certain I had testicular cancer that I literally thought, “Well, it’s them or me.” I envision the anguish of wrestling with that decision to literally neuter myself, of thinking “What if I’m in that 13%? What if I don’t need to do this?” All of the medical issues, the pain, that fluttering of identity when a large part what you consider Your Body gets chopped off and you have to come to terms with the fact that maybe all of you could go away. The realization that my body would be altered in ways I might find aesthetically horrible. The knowledge that everyone would know about this once I blogged about it.
And then I imagine seeing that comment sprayed everwhere: “Poor Gini.”
Because, you know, I’d be less useful to her without balls. My whole goal in life is to satisfy her sexually, and if I fail at that, it’s a tragedy for my wife. In fact, her biggest concern would doubtlessly be my lack of balls, because I had one job, and now I couldn’t do that for her.
Everything I wanted? Fuck that. I’m a support role for my partner’s sexual needs. She’s the one grieving the loss, really.
…except people wouldn’t write that. I’m a guy. Oh, there’d be a lot of sympathy for the sex I couldn’t have, but the underlying premise is that as a male, my body serves my needs. If I want to wear a comfortable shirt that hides my pecs or makes my belly look big, then that’s my decision; I don’t have to deal with a societal pressure to display myself appropriately for the needs of others. If I have to change my body, then that’s what I need to do. I don’t have to consider, or sympathize with, the feelings of all the women fantasizing about me when I feel like doing what’s medically necessary.
I’m not an object for someone else’s pleasure.
Look, it’s well known that I like big breasts, and I literally cannot lie: I’ve never been shy about blogging my love of sex, or of porn. And on those occasions women have felt generous enough to allow me the usage of their breasts for my pleasure, it’s inevitably been a wondrous occasion.
Yet I never once thought the breasts were there for me. They were a part of my partner’s body, and she carried all of the downsides of having them – needing bras, enduring back pain, the difficulties while jogging. When some of my lovers opted for breast reduction surgery I was supportive, because they weren’t just a pair of tits to me – they were a human being, and an unhappy one. If reducing their breasts would make the rest of their lives better, then I wanted their lives better.
As Damien W. Grintalis said, “My guess is Brad would rather have her alive and breastless than possibly dead.” Because a real relationship is multilayered, complex, full of all sorts of supports that go beyond HI YOU ARE SEXY FUNTIEMS NAO. Gini and I had some difficulties getting back into the swing of sex after my triple-bypass, but I don’t think Gini once thought, “If he doesn’t get better in bed, I’m gonna have to leave him.”
Angelina Jolie was, and doubtlessly still is, a beautiful woman. But Brad Pitt had his choice of beautiful women, and as such I assume he picked Angelina for reasons that go far beyond prettiness. I hope he and Angelina are doing all right as they weather today’s storm of media coverage, bracing themselves for the first round of tabloid photos that are sure to arrive. It’s gotta be a tough day for both of them.
Poor Brad? Fuck that. Poor Brad and Angelina. And I hope, I hope, it gets better for the both of them.
To master a skill, you must devote 10,000 hours to it – or so the theory goes. But that 10,000 hours must consist of mindful practice, or else every fryolater slapping burgers at McDonald’s would be a master chef. No, you have to concentrate purposefully on improving your skills, flexing different muscles to install new muscle memories.
So how do you practice mindfully as a writer?
Look, I believe in the 10,000 hours, because I’ve experienced both sides of it. I wrote fiction for twenty years and failed at it, sinking a lot of my time into writing but without making much headway. And then, after Clarion removed some much-needed blinders from me, I wrote purposefully and I started to sell lots of stories. So while every writer is different (the trick to “writer’s tips” is understanding that they’re all about unlocking your inner efficiency, and so you should ruthlessly discard whatever sounds silly to you), I think I can tell many writers how to get those 10,000 hours in so they work.
1) Write Short Stories, And Finish Them.
…at least for purposes of practicing. Novels are wonderful beasts, but they’re sprawling things with hundreds of moving parts – and it’s difficult to get friends to read your 120,000-word saga and offer useful advice. Whereas short stories can be finished in a week or two, they’re usually about simpler scenes, and it’s easy to get people to spend the forty minutes it’ll take to get through them: all things you’ll need. You can write fifteen short stories in the time it takes you to write a novel, and get better feedback as to how the internals of it worked (because with a short story, people are more thorough about critiquing).
Also obvious, but some people never get this: finish those stories. From a practice perspective, five half-written tales aren’t nearly as effective as one completed story. You learn the full arc of a tale when you complete them – and more importantly, you can go to Step #2:
2) Get Each Of Those Stories Critiqued By People Who Like What You’re Trying To Do.
Particularly when you’re in the early part of your journey, there’s going to be a gap between “What you intended to do” and “What you actually evoked in the reader.” For most people, it’s impossible to tell where those gaps are without actually bouncing them off of other readers, and getting their feedback.
You need good readers, though. Usually your Mom and your buddies are just happy to see you writing, and they aren’t overly critical in the way that they analyze it. You need people who are willing to tell you, kindly but firmly, that this story totally didn’t work for them – and then break down what, exactly, what in your prose stopped them from reading the story you wanted to write. (People who complain because you didn’t write the story they would have written? You can dispense with them post-haste. And you can’t rely on rejections, which are too often a mere “no” and hence offer nothing of use for you to go on.)
So find a good writers’ group (or just a group of writers) and have them break down your stories in depth. Otherwise, you’re like a pitcher who can’t see where your ball is landing. You need some feedback to work on your aim.
3) Focus On A Different Technique With Every New Short Story.
If you’re reading a lot of fiction – and you should – you’ll notice the strengths of other writers. As your crit group savages your tales, you’ll notice weaknesses in your own fiction. So to practice mindfully, write stories that focus exclusively on those techniques. Think, “I’m not very good at writing stories without action sequences,” and then set out to write an effective story with no explosions. Think “I usually white-room my stories, not putting much effort into setting,” and then write an evocative prose-piece that’s as much about the exotic bazaar it’s set in as it is about the people in it.
I can tell you what new technique I was trying to master in any story I’ve written. For example:
- “‘Run,’ Bakri Says” was me saying, “I don’t write action stories, so I should write a story that’s nothing but action from start to finish.”
- “Sauerkraut Station” was me saying, “I really liked the way Little House on the Prairie made a bunch of mundane activities like farming and house-building seem riveting. Can I write a story in space that does the same thing?”
- “A Window, Clear As A Mirror” was me saying, “I usually have at least a little plot planned out when I begin writing. What happens if I write a story with no ending point whatsoever, and just wander?”
- “My Father’s Wounds” was me, absolutely loving the way Steven Brust made magic seem mundane, and asking whether I could write a story that had totally human elements with a bit of magic in the way that he did.
- “Dead Merchandise” was me saying, “Wow, Cat Valente writes really dense prose that’s elaborately descriptive, and I’m so bare-bones. What happens when I write something really visual with poetic imagery?”
Now, if you read those stories, you may note that they might seem totally different from the intent I started out with. That’s what happens when you make a story your own: it drifts away from the original influences, and becomes this wonderful melding of new techniques and old strengths. (Or it turns out to be a glorious failure – I have a couple of stories dead at first draft that expanded my skills, but weren’t good stories on their own. That’s okay; the techniques I learned there came in handy in later stories.)
The point is, by experimenting with each of those stories, I practiced. Some of them sold, and got good reviews. Some of them got shelved. All of them sharpened bits that were previously dull. All of them made me a better writer – and quickly, because instead of spending months writing a novel that utilized some (or all) of these ideas, I wrote an easily-critted tale that could tell me whether I’d succeeded or failed.
4) Do Not Write Scratch Pads.
Note that the “test” stories I wrote above were all published: one was nominated for the Nebula, two got “Recommended” reviews from Locus, the toughest reviewers in sci-fi. That’s because even though I was trying new things, I still wrote these stories as though I intended to sell them.
Even if you’re doofing around with something that seems insanely out of your element, even if this seems absurdly stupid to try this crazy new technique, treat the tale as though you had a deadline and an interested editor. Approach every story you write as though this is the big one – because it might be. Who would have guessed that my 18,000-word Laura Ingalls Wilder rip-off would become my most beloved piece of fiction? Hell, I thought it was unpublishable.
5) Practice By Not Writing.
Some of the best mindful practice I got came from not writing, but analyzing. It’s a lot easier to see how fiction works when your own ego’s out of the way – and looking at how tales work (and, just as critically, how they don’t work) expands the brain. So a lot of your practice can, and should, be things like:
- Critiquing other people’s stories. (As a bonus, it helps you stay in that crit group.)
- Being a slush reader. (Breaking down out why six stories a day aren’t publishable makes you realize just how high the bar is in fiction.)
- Reading with intent, which is to say reading your favorite author to go, “Why do I like this so much? What really works here?”
You can’t write for four hours a day every day, but you can usually get a story read on a lunch break. That’ll nudge you closer to your 10k goal.