satire, fiction and humor, writing

What It’s REALLY Like To Be A Professional Writer

The number-one question I get asked by people who find out what I do for a living is “What is it like to be a writer?”

And I…I don’t know.

I HAVE NO IDEA

I’VE NEVER NOT BEEN A WRITER

THIS IS MY ONLY SKILL

Which is to say, sure, let’s talk about my amazing writer lifestyle.

I Work From Home

This one was a lot more impressive before COVID-19. Now, a bunch of people who did not previously work from home are now working from home. And everyone is realizing that it’s actually not as cool as y’all dreamed back when you were trying to envision yourselves living my unattainably glamorous writer life.

The primary features of working from home for me, A Writer, are:

  • Cats
  • Self-direction, aka “being able to get work done without someone breathing down my neck”
  • Not wearing pants

I’m Kind of My Own Boss, I Guess?

The truth is, no one who sells their labor for a living is their own boss. You may call your boss by a different name than “boss.” I call mine “clients” or “editors.” But I still have people who expect me to deliver certain things by certain deadlines and who are varying levels of helpful to me in that endeavor.

What I don’t have is someone to manage the details of how I deliver those things by those deadlines. I don’t have anyone who expects me to be at my desk at a certain time, or who makes sure I have the tools I need, or who barks at me if I stand at the water cooler too long. I don’t have someone who processes my payroll or deducts my taxes or keeps track of my healthcare spending, either. I have to do all those things myself.

In other words, being a professional writer is having to do all the work of both labor and management without getting any of the benefits of being the latter. But if you are a hermit slash control freak (like me), it’s an ideal setup.

“You Should Be Writing” Memes Can Go to Hell

Judging by how much they post and share “you should be writing” memes, a lot of amateur or aspiring writers seem to find them extremely helpful.

I’m not one of them.

The reason I don’t take “you should be writing” memes seriously is because my writing time is scheduled. Always. I write for about six hours a day – four in the morning and two in the evening.

If it’s writing time, I don’t need to hear that I “should” be writing, because I am writing. If it’s not writing time, I don’t need to hear that I “should” be writing, because I should not be writing – I should be doing whatever that time is for, like running errands or cleaning my house or playing Skyrim or having hot sex with my spouse.

This, by the way, is my number-one piece of advice for aspiring writers who want to be actual writers. Schedule your writing time, and then show up to it like you would to any other obligation.

If you don’t need “you should be at work during your shift” memes, you don’t need “you should be writing” memes, either.

I Eat Food, I Guess?

Food has actually been one of the hardest parts of being a full-time writer for me. I like my zone. I do not like interrupting my zone to tend to the needs of my body, especially when it wants food again, ugh, I just fed you *checks watch* four whole hours ago.

Some of my favorite food hacks:

  • Eat the same things every day, if you want. It significantly reduces the brain power I have to waste on food.
  • Think macros, not meals. As long as I get carbs, fat and protein in every Instance of Putting Food in My Facehole, I’m good.
  • Leftovers are your friend. Eat your friend.

Sometimes I get more creative with the making of food items. Sometimes I blog about them. Blogging about food generally leads to regrets and is not recommended, unless you are not me. Then you do you.

I Mess Around on Twitter Quite a Lot

To the onlooker, I appear to mess around on Twitter too much. Indeed, one may wonder how I get any writing done at all. (This is why people insist on sending me “you should be writing” memes.)

In fact, I do a lot of prewriting and field-testing of ideas on Twitter. I love Twitter because I can brain-dump whatever ideas I’m kicking around into the void, and the void tells me which ones have traction.

I don’t know why you all enjoy 280-character political shitposting so much, but here we are. Also muffin recipes. And that time I broke my own notifications. And making fun of my cats.

I Live in a House and Own a Car

Like a lot of Americans, I too live in a house and own a car.

The car is extremely lonely thanks to the need to quarantine. “Why am I stuck in this garage?” my car asks. “I’m not the one who will get COVID and die if I leave the house.”

If you also live in a house and have a car, congratulations! You are two steps closer to living a glamorous writer lifestyle just like me.

If you don’t live in a house and/or own a car, maybe you are one of those writers who doesn’t live in a house or own a car. Those writers also exist!

Have more questions about what it’s like to be a writer? Drop me a line or maybe a tip. After all, I glamorously require money to buy food in order to survive! Livin’ the dream!

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the creative process, writing

You’ve Been Using the Thesaurus All Wrong

Can I rant about the thesaurus? I’m ranting about the thesaurus.

I was taught, way back in elementary school, the same thing millions of other kids were taught: The thesaurus is a big book of synonyms and antonyms. If you want a word that’s like (or opposite) a word you know, you go look up the word you know and use one of the big, fancy words in the thesaurus instead.

Everyone who ever told you this probably had your best interests as a young writer at heart. They were probably doing their best to encourage your love of learning and language.

They were also completely, utterly, absolutely, altogether, entirely, wholly, quite, fully, perfectly wrong.

The Origins of the Thesaurus

To understand the thesaurus, you first have to understand the Enlightenment. Beginning in 1715 or thereabouts, the Enlightenment was in some ways a natural outgrowth of the Renaissance. Having gotten really into new ideas and new ways of looking at the world, Europe got really into nature and science (such as it was in the 1700s).

Included in this new vogue for Knowing Stuff was a new interest in Classifying Stuff. The Enlightenment gave us Carl Linnaeus, for example, who in turn gave us taxonomy – the means by which we classify living things.

Round about the end of the Enlightenment era, a Scottish kid named Peter Mark Roget was earning his MD at the University of Edinburgh. Medicine was fun and all, but what Roget found he really liked to do was to Classify Things. Linnaeus’s new taxonomy system did some cool stuff for the natural world, but what about the English language?

Peter Mark Roget developed a new passion: Collecting English words and attempting to classify them according to their relationships with one another. It was a passion that would consume most of his life.

Roget published his first thesaurus in 1852, not as a “big book of words that mean the same as other words,” but as a first attempt to classify every word in the English language in a way that mapped its relationship to every other word in the English language.

Thesaurus: You’re Doing It Wrong

Most schoolkids today are introduced to the thesaurus as a book of synonyms (and occasionally antonyms). Many classroom thesauruses today are even presented in alphabetical order, to make it easier for students to look up fancier words they can use to replace perfectly serviceable everyday words so that maybe Teacher won’t notice they didn’t actually read the homework.

Roget is crying in his grave. For shame.

Roget did not give a crap about the pursuit of nickel-word synonyms. His was a much larger vision: A single volume that organized the entire language. Looking at individual words was like examining individual blades of grass when Roget had invited you on a round of golf.

No one has managed a feat like Roget’s before or since. The ThinkMap Visual Thesaurus comes close, but even it is clunky to use compared to Roget’s original, non-alphabetized thesaurus. Most online and built-in thesauruses are unusable for Roget’s purposes.

So How Am I Supposed to Use The Thesaurus, Anyway?

First, stop thinking of your thesaurus as a plug-and-play module. The words in any given entry are not, in fact, fully interchangeable with all the other words in any given entry.

Rather, think of a thesaurus entry as a collection of related ideas. When you look up a word in Roget’s Thesaurus, what you’re seeing are the other most closely-related ideas to that word that exist in the English language. The entries just above and below the entry you’re reading are also closely related, albeit less so. The further away you get from your entry of choice, the less related the ideas are, although every idea in a particular class is related in some way (hint: it’s in the name of the class).

The thesaurus thus offers an extraordinary way to expand one’s thinking on any given topic. For this reason, I argue they’re actually more valuable in creative writing than they are in academic or technical writing.

For example, here’s the entry in the 7th edition of Roget’s International Thesaurus for “keep the peace” (“peace” as a verb):

remain at peace, wage peace; refuse to shed blood, keep one’s sword in its sheath; forswear violence, beat one’s swords into plowshares; pursue the arts of peace, pour oil on troubled waters; make love not war; defuse

These are all related ideas, but they aren’t all equivalent ideas. For instance, to “refuse to shed blood,” “keep one’s sword in its sheath,” or “forswear violence” are largely passive: They involve not actively waging war, but not much beyond that. To “beat one’s swords into plowshares” or “pour oil on troubled waters,” by contrast, are active: They involve actually doing something to end current strife or prevent future strife.

What’s the difference? Ask Donald Trump, who tried very hard to justify his own deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize by arguing that he hadn’t started any wars, even though he could have. The Nobel committee rejected this argument, and rightly so: “I didn’t start a fight” is not an active contribution to peace the way “I mediated a dispute” or “I helped give people food so they didn’t have to fight each other for it” are.

For novelists, storytellers, playwrights and poets, too, all of these closely-related ideas are nonetheless different. To “remain at peace” indicates an ongoing state of peace, whereas to “wage peace” or “defuse” indicates the need to transition out of a warlike state. One might “pursue the arts of peace” in either situation (and one might be good or bad at them, or anything in between). “Make love not war” might not be a peaceful endeavor at all, as anyone who has in fact tried to make love well knows.

The great power of the thesaurus is to open up our understanding of a word like “peace” or a cliche like “make love not war” by allowing us to see it in the context of the English language as a whole, surrounded by terms that mean almost but not quite the same thing. The plug-and-play approach to the thesaurus as book of synonyms does the opposite – it short-circuits this kind of exploration and play by (wrongly) reassuring us that any of these words will do just as well as any of the others.

But are “cessation of combat” and “public tranquillity” really the same thing? What about “peace and quiet” and “law and order”? Or “noncombatant” and “citizen”?

I suspect that for most of us, the answer is “no.” Those words and phrases may have related meanings, but they don’t have the same meanings. And exploring the differences within those relations can teach us a great deal about how we think, as well as how we communicate with others.


For more hot takes on 270 year old books, buy me a coffee.

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non-compliant space, the creative process, writing

Non-Compliant Space Character Descriptions: A Resource for Fanart

This tweet floated across my feed yesterday:

screenshot_20200723-123303_twitter1475189129748477459.jpg

Tweet by @VickyCBooks. It reads, “proposal: authors keeping character descriptions on their website so fanartists can have a reference even if they don’t have a copy immediately on hand. pls i beg u”

I immediately retweeted it with the promise that I would do this for you, my beloved fans. I will describe characters for you.

This list is alphabetical. It’s ongoing, but also probably always incomplete. If you need a character description that’s not here, drop me a line in the comments!

ncschardesc

Aqharan Bereth

Voldemort, if Voldemort were creepily handsome instead of just creepy. Bereth is tall (about 6’5″/196 cm) and fairly thin; his shoulders are a little too broad for the rest of his frame. Despite this, he doesn’t move as if he’s top-heavy, but rather like he’s been a professional dancer his whole life.

He has a long face, black hair that reaches to mid-back, ears that are pinned back slightly, and his eyes are a little too far apart. They’re blue. Blue blue. The kind of blue eyes that appear too often in bad fanfiction. Mid-May Mediterranean “nothing that blue actually exists in the real world, I must be hallucinating” blue.  “I will stab your soul” blue. However blue you’re planning to make them, make them bluer.

You know how Angelica can’t stop singing about Alexander’s eyes in Hamilton? Like that. Your impression of this man should be “he can and will kill me with his gaze, and I will let him. I will die happy contemplating these eyes that should not exist. Stare at me, senpai.”

His entire family, and all Rehhn, have skin that ranges from Cardassian gray to paper/snow/icing-sugar white. It’s also pearlescent. Yes, they literally glow.

He tends to wear monochromatic, minimalist suits that are of course made for him. He favors grey tones or muted blues. No embellishments – no buttons, rickrack, etc. People should wonder if he’s sewn into his clothes every morning or what.

Aqharan Mazereth

Mazereth is shorter than her father Bereth, but not much – about 6’2″. She has his too-broad shoulders, but on her they make it look like she’s basically a rectangle and her “curves in all the right places” (and she has curves in all the right places) were pastede on yey.

Her face is more square than round, and her eyes, rather than being “this blue is clearly fake” blue, are “I think they call this color ‘gunmetal'” grey/blue/purple. Her hair is also black, but a slightly warmer/more brown-toned black than her father’s, and it reaches nearly to the small of her back when it’s loose, which it never is.

She favors severe updos and painfully of-the-moment dresses, with heels, in an attempt to make herself look older than she is (she’s about 27 in Earth years). Most of her wardrobe is black, white, red, forest green, or royal blue.

Cordry

Senior Engineer Cordry is 24 years old with an incredibly lanky build – all limbs, no curves. Cordry has hair the color and texture of cornsilk, in an inch-long cut that’s never quite even all the way around, being self-administered. Eyes are hazel-ish. Ears are a little too big for the face. Cordry’s skin tone is very pink even for a white person.

Entire wardrobe is “cargo” – cargo pants, cargo jacket, and so on, along with basic t-shirts in various colors, and always looking like Cordry got dressed in the dark. Everything’s a little too big, which obscures any curves Cordry may or may not have.

Special Agent Quincey Dillon

Medium. Medium everything. Whatever the median human [attribute] is, that’s Dillon. Dillon strikes the viewer as someone who is so utterly the median human that he should not exist. In fact you’re not even sure “he” is the right pronoun.

Favors three-piece suits in shades as medium as his skin tone, with flamboyant ties or those floppy bow-style ties that you see in pictures of Oscar Wilde.

Ideally, all images of Dillon will be generated by feeding billions of photos of human faces to an AI and asking it to generate the median human face. Every result will be equally accurate.

Hayek

Hayek is about 6’5″, big-boned and strongly built but going slightly to seed. The kind of guy you would ask, “Dude, did you play football?”, except the perpetual scowl on his face kind of makes you not want to talk to him at all, in case he answers by punching you in the face.

Hayek’s ancestry is Latino/Hopi; in him they read as “generic Brown dude.” Lips are thin, nose/ears are a little too big and eyes (brown) are a little too small for his face; his nose has definitely been broken and not properly set at least once. His hair is black, but in that phase where it’s interspersed with gray so that it looks either black, charcoal, or salt and pepper depending on the lighting. It’s in a “high and tight” military cut, which doesn’t suit him. He’s not a handsome dude, but there’s something appealing about him when he smiles, which isn’t often.

Always wears combat boots, cargo pants, a basic t-shirt (black or white) sometimes with the sleeves cut off, and a large olive-colored Kevlar-plated jacket. Also always has at least one gun.

Lang

Erin Lang is 19 and is built almost exactly like Cordry, except her hair reaches past her waist (she can almost but not quite sit on it), her eyes are blue (regular blue), made larger by her choice of makeup, and her skin isn’t quite as pink as it is generic white girl. Her ears are quite small and she has a button nose. She has visible curves, unlike Cordry, though this is probably due more to how she dresses.

Lang prefers jeans and t-shirts or sweatshirts, most of which are random graphic tees, often relating to places she has never been or schools she has never attended. She has an oversized olive-colored field jacket of the type commonly found in Army surplus stores, with lots of pockets. Her whole wardrobe looks like she’s assembled it on the run from random thrift stores. Her hair is always worn straight down her back, without bangs.

Lang and Cordry are not actually related, but they look like they could be.

Makkarah Alatwi (Twi)

Twi is a young adult (around 25-30 in human ages), about 6’6″ tall and 300 pounds. There’s not a straight line anywhere in her build except the slope of her nose, which is basically a right triangle. Her eyes are gold; her skin is bright blue – not as bright as Aqharan Bereth’s eyes, but much that same Mediterranean sky color. (Devori skin tones range from royal blue to faded blue-grey, so she’s right in the middle.)

Her hair is the same color as her skin, but streaked with red and gold. The red is natural, the gold is not. She has a sprinkling of bright red freckles across her nose and cheeks.

She wears nondescript slacks or scrubs without embellishment, long-sleeved scoop-neck shirts, and a white lab coat that pulls downward at the shoulders because the pockets are so overstuffed.

Molloy

About 5’4″ and 160ish pounds. I imagine her looking like Mae Jemison, only stockier. Molloy is built like a rectangle and gives the impression that she doesn’t use doors – she just walks straight through the wall. (In fact she has a giant soft spot for little kids and surly a-holes down on their luck, like Hayek.)

She’s 45 at the time of the first book. She dresses like Hayek, only with fewer weapons and a non-armored jacket.

(A note for fan creators: Molloy is a straight-up lesbian. She has never had Those Feelings for a dude in her entire life and she never will.)

Niralans (like, all of them)

The first thing to understand about Niralans is that every single one of them has the same basic face. The Niralan face is round, trending toward oval but not quite, with high cheekbones, a small nose and ears, medium-full lips, and eyes that are slightly larger than expected (with a third eyelid that fully retracts when they’re awake, unless they’re ill, similar to a cat’s), and way too many eyelashes. Skin tone is flat white, like standard flat latex wall paint.

What differ are hair tones, eye colors, the pattern of the kiiste (the black lines that cover the right side of the face and body), and heights/weights, which are influenced by their upbringing to a much larger degree than humans’ heights/weights are.

Nantais: Hair is true black and so are her eyes, with no clear difference between the iris and the pupil. Kiiste consist of four lines that converge and diverge in a twisting pattern across the right side of the forehead, merge completely at the outermost edge of the right eye, and diverge again across the right cheek and jaw and down the neck.

  • Dar Nantais is about 5’3″ and 120 pounds, mostly muscle. She has little in the way of curves; she’s built like she was born to spend her life crammed into small spaces. She’s most noticeable among Niralans by the way her face always looks tense. She wears utility coveralls or jeans and tank tops (usually black).
  • Koa Nantais is taller, about 5’6″, and 130-140 pounds, with considerably more curve (and less relative strength) than her cousin Dar. She moves like she’s not only completely comfortable in her body but enjoys causing pantsfeelings in others. Unlike most Niralans, she loves color and wears a lot of it; she’s very comfortable in full-length dresses. Koa smiles a lot. It’s not always friendly.

Nahara: Hair is blue-black; eyes are navy blue. Kiiste consist of three lines that otherwise look very similar to Nantais’s.

  • Piya Nahara is about 5’6″, barely 110 pounds; she looks bony and underfed, and her cheekbones and eyes are especially prominent. Until the end of Nahara, she never wears anything but a sleeveless black dress with two large pockets that looks like a potato sack.

Niralans get more white hair as they age. Until middle age (about 100 in Earth years), their hair is entirely black; as they get older, more white strands begin to appear, until the hair is completely white around age 175 or so.


Help fuel my novels: buy me a coffee or show me your amazing fanart.

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