Category Archives: Musings

Skill Doesn’t Always Lead to Passion… but Passion Can (Almost) Always Lead to Skill

A couple of months ago, I wrote about following your passion, and why it’s an idea that is too often romanticized, but why I also think it’s worthwhile. I want to follow up on that for a minute, because I’ve encountered an idea in several different places recently that basically boils down to “real passion comes from being good at something, so focus on the things you’re good at and passion will come naturally.” This is probably true for some people, or else the idea wouldn’t be so prevalent, but it couldn’t be further from my own experiences, and I think it has the potential to lead to some bad places.

I grew up with a natural talent for writing. It’s also something I love doing. My natural talent was nowhere near enough, by itself, to get me to a professional level of skill, but because it was something that I loved, and something that mattered to me, I developed my skill far beyond what I was born with.

But I’m good at other things, too. Including playing the viola, as I discovered when my school had everyone pick a musical instrument. I wasn’t any kind of musical prodigy, but I had enough natural talent to pick it up more quickly than average. I ended up playing for about three years. I practiced nearly every day, and steadily improved. I wasn’t amazing at it, but I was good enough to win spots in performances that required auditions.

It took me three years to realize that despite my talent and the skill I had developed, it wasn’t something I actually enjoyed. I didn’t get any real fulfillment from getting better at it or demonstrating my skills, and I didn’t feel what musicians talk about feeling when they pick up their instruments. I practiced not because of any internal drive, but because I was supposed to. The reason it took so long for me to figure all this out is that I was familiar with the narrative of how playing music is something that smart and creative people do. For as long as I could remember, I had been told that I was both of those things—and so, based on my subconscious logic, of course I liked playing a musical instrument, right? That was the narrative I knew, and so I assumed I was enjoying myself, even when it didn’t fit my actual thoughts and feelings. Even once I realized the viola wasn’t for me, I just figured I was playing the wrong instrument, and switched to the guitar. It took another three years for me to figure out what was really going on—I didn’t belong in that narrative after all. I was good at playing music, and I had the personality for it, but it simply didn’t appeal to me.

I started with something I was naturally good at, and spent six years steadily improving my skills. I got plenty of external validation, and was able to watch myself getting better. But I never developed passion, and only rarely felt even a quieter kind of enjoyment. Even before I figured out where I had gone wrong, it was certainly never something I considered devoting the rest of my life to.

In contrast, about ten years ago I started exploring a style of digital art that involves using software to create images using pre-created 3D figures. (Here are some examples of varying quality, although none of these are mine.) I was, frankly, terrible at it. Visual art is not where my talents lie. But it was fun. I loved doing it—not the same way I love writing, but enough to keep on doing it and work at getting better. I read guides for beginners, and more advanced tips, and studied what other people were doing. When I created an image I wasn’t happy with, I tried to figure out where it had gone wrong. I kept learning and working until what I was doing was, if not exceptional, at least above average for an amateur. I stopped for reasons unrelated to either skill or enjoyment, but if I had chosen to focus seriously on it, I have no doubt that I could have improved my skills much further. I would have become much better at it than I had ever been at the viola or the guitar, and enjoyed the process a lot more.

It’s easy to look at something you’re good at and think you should be spending your life doing that. Especially when that’s the feedback you get from the people around you. I’m lucky in that the thing I have the most natural talent for is also the thing that gives me the most fulfillment. But that’s luck (or possibly a very early love for storytelling that made me focus enough on it at a young age to give me an advantage when I started writing stories of my own). That’s not how it works for everyone. Sometimes the thing you’re good at isn’t the thing you want to devote the rest of your life to—even if the narrative tells you it is.

There are times when choosing to spend your life doing the thing you’re good at, even if you’re not passionate about it, is the right decision. You might not actively dislike it, after all; maybe it just doesn’t set your soul on fire. (And it’s okay not to have an intense passion! A lot of people don’t.) Or maybe you’re the type of person for whom the joy of accomplishment and achievement is as important as, or more important than, enjoyment of the process.

And it should go without saying—but often doesn’t—that deciding to spend your life doing something you love, but not putting in the time and effort to get good at it, is never a good decision. That’s true whether you’re naturally talented or not. Except in the case of genuine prodigies, natural talent is never enough, and if you rely solely on that, eventually you’ll hit a wall and realize you never learned how to work to improve your skill.

But you can get good at anything—barring natural limitations, of course (I’m never going to be tall enough for basketball, no matter how much work I put into it). So if you there’s a choice between doing something you’re good at but don’t really care about, and doing something that you enjoy or find fulfilling, I would almost always say to choose the latter. Even if you’re terrible at it, you can change that. And when it’s something that matters to you, the process of getting better will be, if not fun (because work doesn’t have to be fun!), at least satisfying in the way that devotion to a craft or field you love is satisfying.

It’s hard work, but making yourself enjoy something is a whole lot harder.

Why I Prefer Frodo Baggins to James Bond

Frodo Baggins is my favorite fictional character.

He accepts a quest that he knows is too much for him, that he’s been told is too much for him. He wants nothing more than to keep on living his comfortable quiet life, but he takes the Ring to Mordor anyway, because he knows he’s the only one who can. He pushes himself to the limit of his endurance and beyond. When he has nothing left; he just keeps going; even when his physical strength gives out and he can no longer walk, he crawls forward. When I read Lord of the Rings as a kid, Frodo shaped my view of what a hero is.

And yet this is a controversial preference. When I reread Lord of the Rings a couple of years ago, I discovered that a lot of people dislike the story because of him, or even love the story but wish he weren’t a part of it. They see him as weak, as not properly heroic. Where I see the ideal hero, they see someone pitiful and passive.

There are two types of fictional heroes, I’ve noticed, that people tend to gravitate towards. And I suspect both are popular for the same reason. When we read, we often put ourselves into the shoes of the main character. It’s natural. We want to imagine ourselves stepping outside of our ordinary lives for a while, defeating monsters and having great adventures. We like to think that if we were those characters, we could do what they do.

The first type of hero is the larger-than-life character, the kind of person we wish we could be. They’re good at what they do—not just good, but the best. They have the skills to get out of any situation they find themselves in. Hardly anything fazes them. The people around them admire them and fall in love with them. They triumph because of their competence. James Bond, for instance, is a classic wish-fulfillment character in this mold.

The second type of character is also wish fulfillment, but in a different sense. These characters aren’t larger than life; they’re ordinary people, or appear to be at first. They might be skilled at certain things, just like we all have our own strengths, but their skills aren’t on a superhuman level. They are not unfazed; they go through their stories as uncertain and afraid as we would be in their situation. But these characters also triumph in the end, and when they do, it’s because of their inner strength.

The first type of character lets us imagine being somebody else—somebody stronger, somebody smarter, somebody better. The second type of character lets us imagine being heroes as we are—ordinary people who are capable of accomplishing extraordinary things.

I think I prefer the second type because they let me imagine myself as a hero while remaining myself. To be a James Bond type, for instance I would have to be an entirely different person, with an entirely different personality and set of strengths. And while I can understand the appeal of that kind of fantasy, that’s not what I want. I like who I am, even though my traits aren’t those of the typical hero. I like being a quiet person with a quiet life. I like being more intellectual than physical. I like being cautious and needing time to analyze a situation before acting. In short, I like all the things about myself that would make me completely unsuitable as a larger-than-life action hero. And while it can be fun to step into the head of someone totally different for a while, what I really love are stories that let me be myself in my daydreams of heroism.

And more than that, I love stories that say that people who aren’t the type of person everyone wishes they could be (and really, who among us is capable of being James Bond?) can also accomplish great things—not in spite of who they are, but because of it. Aragorn, after all, who does fit the mold of the classic hero, would have been corrupted by the Ring long before he reached Mount Doom.

A Job You Love Is Still a Job

“Choose a job you love, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.”

This platitude gets repeated over and over again. And as someone who turned my childhood dream into a career, I can tell you that there’s not a bit of truth to it.

When you do something as a hobby, you probably only do it when you feel like it. It’s what you do for fun, or to relax. I remember when I wrote purely for fun, before I was even thinking about publishing anything. I remember writing thirty pages in a day in a rush of pure inspiration, and waking up the next morning with an idea for a new story I loved even more. I remember dreaming up endless details for stories that never got put to paper, because the dreaming was the fun part.

When you start doing that same thing as a job, you do it every day, whether you want to or not. It doesn’t matter if you’re not feeling inspired. It doesn’t matter if there’s something else you’d rather do. Or maybe you really do want to write (or draw, or whatever else) but what you want is to work on that new idea that came to you overnight, not the overdue project that you’ve been stalled on for the past week. That doesn’t matter either. You have to write, or the book won’t get written.

It can be a difficult shift to adjust to, especially given the expectations around working a job you love (see the above platitude)—particularly creative work, and particularly if you’re self-employed. I’ve seen more than one person who turned a hobby into a career talk about how it ruined the thing they used to love. They say that’s why you should never try to make a living doing something you love, and should instead ruthlessly separate work and play. They end up quitting writing entirely, or art, or programming. For some, that’s the right decision. But for others, I suspect all they really need to hear is, “That’s normal. You didn’t ruin it, you just started doing it when you didn’t want to do it. Nothing is fun all the time when you do it on demand. That doesn’t mean it can’t still be fulfilling.”

Yes, writing is less fun for me now. I still have days when inspiration runs through my veins like lightning, and I can’t sleep because of all the ideas circling through my head. I also have days when my unfinished draft feels like a weight pressing me to the earth, and I don’t want to get out of bed because it will mean sitting down at the computer again and trying to wring words out of my brain for That Awful Book again. Most of the time it’s neither of those things. It’s just the thing I do every day. It’s a routine. It’s work.

But work isn’t a bad thing. Writing is less fun than it was when I only did it when I felt like it—but fun isn’t my number one goal in life. Everyone needs fun, including me. Sometimes I need a day off to just play video games all day and not think about the stupid book. But I’d feel better after a week of beating my head against a wall over a project that matters to me, and getting that much closer to sending it out into the world, than after a week of nothing but video games. I suspect most people would.

It’s not about fun. It’s about fulfillment. It’s about spending my life doing something that matters to me—and however I feel about the writing process on any given day, telling stories still matters just as deeply to me as it did when all my writing was for fun. Maybe more, because my years spent improving my craft have given me a deeper appreciation for what goes into a well-told story and what it can mean to a reader.

I didn’t ruin writing for myself. I don’t even want to go back to how it used to be. I finish my projects now instead of walking away when they’re not fun anymore; I do the unsexy work of revising and editing to make my stories into what I want them to be; and regular practice—however unwilling at times—has improved my skills enough to let me write a book that begins to approach how the idea looked in that initial burst of inspiration, instead of a pale reflection. I sit down at my desk every day and add something to the world that did not exist before. I have no regrets.

And I have friends who looked at what it took to be a professional writer and decided they only ever wanted to write as a hobby. As far as I know, they also have no regrets.

I’ve seen a lot of backlash lately against the idea of following one’s passion. I don’t agree with it. I think a lot of the people who turn their backs on their dreams to go for the smart choice are going to wake up thirty years from now and wonder why they didn’t even try. I believe in doing something with your life that matters to you, insofar as that’s possible, whether it’s how you make money or not. Which means, yes, I believe in chasing your dream and following your passion.

That is, I believe in following your passion as long as you know what you’re getting into.

Just don’t go into it thinking you’ll never work a day in your life. Work you love is still work—and that’s not a bad thing.

Six Months

So I just realized something – yesterday marks six months since I first published The Torturer’s Daughter.

It’s been a good six months. The response to The Torturer’s Daughter has been a lot better than I ever thought it would be. Six months ago I went into this not knowing what to expect, excited and nervous at sending my book out into the world. Now I have fans I’ve never met, people I don’t know but who are connected to me through this creation of my imagination.

It’s a strange feeling.

Even though I was sure I was doing the right thing by self-publishing The Torturer’s Daughter, there was still that small part of me that wondered whether I would regret it. Now I can say for certain that I don’t. I don’t know where I would be right now if I had taken a different path, but I do know that I’m happy with the one I chose.

I don’t know what the next six months will hold, or the next year, or the next six years. But I’m looking forward to finding out.

Novellas and Novels: What Do You Want From Your Reading?

I’ve been thinking about novellas and novels and short stories lately, and why I have a strong preference for longer fiction while other people prefer the shorter stuff. I know there’s no sharp line between the two audiences – lots of people like both novels and short fiction. Even though I’m mainly a novel reader, I’ll still read a novella sometimes, and I know there are plenty of people who read novels, novellas, and short stories indiscriminately. But I know a lot of readers check the page count carefully before they order an ebook (I’m one of them), while others couldn’t be happier at finally being able to find novella-length stories.

There was a discussion on Kindleboards the other day asking whether the authors who visit the site plan to write more short fiction or longer works this year, and that’s part of what made me start thinking about it. I had assumed it mostly depended on what people were used to reading – I’ve been inhaling novels all my life, while other people grew up reading short-story magazines – but reading through the thread, I got the sense that it came down to more than that. Someone mentioned preferring novels because a novella might not tie up all the loose ends adequately. I’d prefer to read a full-length novel, too, but I had honestly never considered that as a reason. Someone else said that novellas are mainly written to be read in a single reading session, so someone used to sitting down and reading a novel start to finish probably wouldn’t feel satisfied by a novella. Novellas often leave me unsatisfied, too, but I’m used to reading a book over a period of at least a couple of days.

I read this post (part of a larger series) a while back, and that discussion made me think of it again. The post is about video games, but I think some of the points could apply to novels as well. It talks about how people tend to fall into two camps when thinking about the length of a game. For some people, a game – a good one, at least – can never be too long. The longer a game is, the more they feel like they’ve gotten their money’s worth from it, because they’ve gotten more entertainment for their dollar. Others feel like they’ve gotten their money’s worth out of a game when it provides a complete experience that they can finish in a reasonable amount of time. For these people, a game that costs $60 isn’t worth the money if they play for fifty hours and are only half-done, because they’ve only gotten half a game out of it.

The same thing could be true for readers. Maybe there are two ways of looking at a book – whether it provides you with the most hours of entertainment or the most complete experience. (In addition to novels vs. novellas and short stories, it could also apply to whether people like series novels or stand-alones.) Obviously it’s not as cut and dried as all that (just like it isn’t that cut and dried for games, as some of the comments on that blog post point out), but I think it makes a decent starting point.

I tend to fall into the former camp when it comes to games, so it makes sense that I’m the same way about books. It would be very hard for me to find a good book that’s too long. (Obviously a book padded for length is worse than the same book written with tight prose, but in that case the length also makes the book less good, which doesn’t make it a good example.) Although I have to say, I don’t seek out series books as much as I used to – with all the books I already want to read, the thought of getting into a new series can feel daunting. When I find a really good series, though, as long as the books stay consistently good I don’t want it to end. I don’t need the wrap-up in order to feel satisfied, as long as the good books keep coming.

What do you think? Does this seem like a plausible way of looking at reading? What do you look for when you read – is it more important to get a complete experience or more hours of entertainment?

Readers and Writers

I’ve noticed a strange animosity towards readers in writing communities lately. Writers complaining that readers are greedy mooches who just want free books, or sneaky mooches who wait for a book to go on sale before buying it. (As if we haven’t all waited for something we weren’t sure about paying full price for to go on sale at one point or another.) Grumbling about readers who don’t write reviews, or saying that readers have no taste and just want to read something that doesn’t make them think.

Even when there’s no animosity, there’s still a divide. Writers spend countless hours fruitlessly trying to figure out what readers want and how readers discover books. I see writers talking about how sites like Goodreads are useless because they’re places to talk about books you’ve read, not places for writers to promote their books. It’s common, it seems, to talk about readers as elusive prey, with writers the hunters trying to capture them.

It can be easy to slip into that kind of thinking. All writers want more readers, and once you start thinking about how to get more people to read your book, it’s easy to start seeing readers as maddeningly wily creatures to be hunted with your release schedules and your marketing plans.

It can be easy to forget that you’re a reader too.

But writers are, presumably, readers. At least I hope I can make that assumption. After all, if you don’t love books and reading, why write a book in the first place?

I’m sure there are a few writers out there who don’t love books, not even their own – who see their books simply as a vehicle for their entrepreneurship. I don’t want to read these writers’ books. I’m of the opinion that these writers should go write for a content site (that plague of the internet) and stop pushing their soulless novels on unsuspecting readers. But I doubt this type of writer is common. I think it’s more likely that the divide comes both from a misguided marketing mindset and from the idea some people seem to have that you can either be one or the other. if you’re a writer, you’re not a reader, because you’re a writer.

But that idea is wrong.

I’m a reader as much as I am a writer. Being a writer doesn’t make me less of a reader. I didn’t start loving books any less the day I started writing, or the day I started writing stuff that was actually good, or the day I published a novel. My writing would have suffered if I had. My writing is built on a foundation of reading, the way all writing should be.

So I won’t draw the line between readers and writers that so many people do. I won’t stop thinking of myself as a reader just because I’ve published a book. If I did, I would be denying the very thing that makes my writing possible.

 

Finding Hope in the Darkness

Love and hope and the better parts of human nature aren’t the first things people think of when they think of dystopia. But I believe they can be an important component of the genre – and, if done right, these things can come across more strongly in dystopian fiction than in lighter and happier stories. Today I’m over on Justine Graykin‘s blog talking about hope in the midst of darkness and what makes it so powerful. Come read the post and share your thoughts!

This Is What It Feels Like to Fulfill a Dream

It’s been a week since The Torturer’s Daughter was released, and I’m still having trouble processing it. It’s hard for me to believe that I really do have a book out there for people – people who don’t even know me – to read. I know eventually I’ll be used to this; I’ll take it for granted. I won’t get a chill every time I see my Amazon page, and start giggling like a little girl whenever I see that someone else has bought my book. But for now, I’m savoring the newness of it. The surreal unfamiliarity.

When I first started thinking about self-publishing, back when I was only going to do it under a pen name for a project that didn’t pan out, I knew I wanted to do it seriously, professionally, rather than just for fun or just for the heck of it. The lines get murky when it comes to self-publishing, I know,  but there’s a difference, at least a psychological one, between self-publishing with the intent to start a professional writing career and, say, posting a story on fictionpress.com. There’s nothing wrong with the latter, but it’s not what I wanted. But like I said, the lines get murky – so I had to figure out where that line was for me, draw it out inside my head. And that line was having a stranger pay for something I’ve written. I didn’t know how long it would take me to cross that line when I published The Torturer’s Daughter, but I had faith that I would.

I crossed it the first day it came out. Then crossed it twice over. Then again, and again, and again. I don’t know whether dreams are fulfilled at a geometric or exponential rate, but by either count I ended up far ahead of where I thought I would be.

The day The Torturer’s Daughter came out was one of the three best days of my life.

The sales I’ve gotten so far would look like nothing to someone who’s been doing this, and doing well at this, for a long time. But how I felt that first day wasn’t about numbers. It was about crossing that line, crossing it and leaving it in the distance. It was about reaching something I’ve been aiming towards for so long that the aiming itself was one of the threads my life was woven out of. The giddy bemused disorientation of looking at that thread and realizing it no longer belongs, and that something else has taken its place.

This is what it feels like to fulfill a dream.

The Little Things

A couple of years ago, a friend mentioned to me that when he got married, changing his Facebook status almost made it feel more real than signing the official documents did.

I thought back to that last night, when I told Microsoft Word to start using curly quotes.

Several years ago now, when I was first starting to think about getting published, I was researching manuscript format and learned that if you’re going to be submitting manuscripts online, you need to turn off curly quotes in Word. Otherwise the formatting could go wonky on the agent/editor’s end. I dutifully told Word to stop using them, and I haven’t seen a curly quote in any of my manuscripts for years.

But I’m not submitting anywhere now. And the things I’ve read about ebook formatting say that you should make sure curly quotes are turned on, so that they appear in your final book.

So I turned them on. Because that’s what I’m doing now. I’m not trying to get published; I’m creating ebooks. It took about thirty seconds to change the setting… but it felt surprisingly momentous.

Sometimes it’s the little things that make something feel the most real.

The Ubiquitous Love Triangle

I’ve been feeling strangely nonplussed by the romance subplots in most of what I’ve been reading lately, and for the longest time, I couldn’t figure out why. It’s not that I’m an unromantic person. I love a good intense love story. And it’s not that the books I’ve been reading have been bad – far from it. (The Hunger Games is a perfect example. I loved those books. But the romance aspect… that part did nothing for me.) So what’s going on? Why haven’t I been able to get invested in these relationships?

It took a while, but I finally figured out what the problem is.

I just don’t like love triangles.

I’m not saying books that involve love triangles are bad, and I’m not discounting the possibility that I might write a love triangle someday if it suits the story. But in general, it’s just not a concept that does anything for me. Part of it is that a lot of books have the heroine choosing the mysterious alpha-type when I’m usually rooting for the sweet best friend… but mostly it’s the triangle itself.

What I like is a romance subplot where the main character has one person they’re drawn to above all others, one clear choice. I like soulmate relationships. I want these characters to feel differently about each other than they do about anyone else, to have a connection that nothing else can match. Those are the relationships that draw me in; they’re the ones that have me tensing up as I turn the pages when it looks like they’ll never be able to be together, the ones that can make me forget that a happy ending is all but assured as I read faster to find out whether everything will work out against all odds, the ones that have me bouncing in excitement when the final obstacles are overcome.

When there’s more than one prospect – when the main character could conceivably have that sort of connection with a couple of different people, and could turn away from a connection like that because she likes somebody else better – the romance loses its magic for me. How can they be soulmates if it’s possible for her to choose somebody else? I know that’s not necessarily how it works in real life, but it’s how I prefer my fictional relationships – and after all, it’s not like you always have two guys fighting over you in real life, either.

I mentioned The Hunger Games as an example of a book that I loved, but that didn’t have a romance I was invested in. Granted, romance is a very minor part of The Hunger Games – but I suspect that if it hadn’t involved a love triangle, I would have felt a lot more strongly about that aspect of the trilogy. I could easily see myself getting wrapped up in the relationship between Katniss and Gale, or between Katniss and Peeta. But when she has feelings for both of them? The magic is gone.

In contrast, the romance in Delirium, by Lauren Oliver, drew me in a lot more than I thought it would. I didn’t expect it to, since I hadn’t been having much luck with love stories, especially in YA. I mainly picked up Delirium because I was snapping up every dystopia I could find. But I found myself believing in the romance much more than I thought I would, and rooting for the main characters to not only escape the tyranny of their dystopian world, but for them to be together. I didn’t make the connection at the time, but Delirium, unlike the majority of YA out there these days, didn’t involve a love triangle.

The love triangle is a staple these days – mainly in YA, but in other books as well. And I don’t think it’s going to stop being popular anytime soon. But knowing that I don’t like them, and knowing why, may make it possible for me to enjoy those books more. If the romance subplot does nothing for me, I’ll know it’s not because of the way the characters are written or because there’s something wrong with the book; it’s just because love triangles don’t enthrall me the way soulmate relationships do. I can thoroughly enjoy the rest of the book, accept that the romance subplot probably isn’t going to interest me, and move on. And if a book looks like the main plot will be centered around a love triangle, I can pass it by, knowing it’s probably not my thing.

It’s not a bad thing that authors are writing love triangles, after all. A lot of people like them. (Clearly, or they wouldn’t be so popular.) They’re just not for me.

What kind of romance do you prefer in the books you read? Love triangles? Soulmates? Star-crossed lovers? No love story at all? What do you think of the current ubiquity of love triangles in YA – do you love them, or are you ready for something different?