My 2014 year in review

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2014 has been good to me. I’ve been nonemployed and able to pursue my creative ambitions full force. I met many new friends over the past year and had the opportunity to travel to beautiful places. I’ve got a lot to celebrate. Here’s a rundown of the highlights in no particular order:

  • Traveling to Seattle with my mom and my sister.
  • Spending the holidays with my family in Cincinnati.
  • Accompanying David to math conferences in Baltimore, Banff, Tucson, and the Bay Area (twice).
  • Declaring myself the First Lady of Math Overflow on Twitter (#firstlady #mathoverflow), and writing some fun blog posts about having dinner with mathematicians, Taylor series jokes, and Algebraic Independence Day.
  • Growing closer with my writing group, attending some kick butt writing conferences, and generally figuring out how to be a writer.
  • Placing third in the Georgia Romance Writers Unpublished Maggie Awards for Contemporary Single Title Romance.
  • Completing a 50,000-word draft of a second novel during NaNoWriMo.
  • Graduating from Dad’s Garage improv classes in January and joining four improv troupes over the course of the year (Shark Party, Collective 51, The Outliers, and the now defunct Bangprov). I also auditioned for a couple of things that I didn’t get. I’m thankful for these experiences too because they made me realize how much I wanted to do improv and motivated me to work harder.
  • Taking long form improv classes at The Brink Improv and becoming part of the awesome community there.
  • Made $10 performing in a staged reading! It was my only income for the year.
  • I wasn’t able to attend as many literary and storytelling events as I would have liked this past year, but I did have a couple of opportunities to share stories at Carapace and Naked City. I was a featured storyteller at Stories on the Edge of Night, and I’ll be performing in that show again on January 22nd.
  • I maintained this blog! Since August, I’ve been blogging at least weekly thanks to the introduction of Fantasy Friday. I have plans to introduce some new themed posts in 2015 so stay tuned for that.

Thanks to everyone who reads this blog. It means a lot to me to be able to connect with friends, family, and the greater global community through this space.

Happy New Year!

Fantasy Friday: a new home for Dad’s Garage

Since I launched Fantasy Friday, I’ve talked a lot about my own fantasies. This Friday, I want to do something different and draw attention to Dad’s Garage, a theatre company currently running a Kickstarter campaign to buy their dream home, a church in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward. While they’ve already met their initial goal of $116,000, they’re now aiming to raise $150,000 (donations up to this amount will be matched by an anonymous donor).

On their Kickstarter page, you’ll find video testimonials from a lot of really cool people in support of their campaign. I thought I would go ahead and share my testimonial here.

I started taking improv classes at Dad’s Garage in January 2013. At the time, I hated getting out of bed in the morning and cried every day about how much I disliked my job. I didn’t have a lot of hope for the future. I enrolled in classes at Dad’s because I’d enjoyed doing improv when I was younger and thought I might be able to reconnect with something that brought me joy.

It worked! Better than expected actually. Dad’s classes not only fulfilled me creatively and connected me with a group of people struggling with the same sort of existential issues I was facing, they also empowered me to take greater control over my life.

See, improv offers the opportunity to role play, to experiment with being different characters and to experience emotions and situations one wouldn’t necessarily be comfortable with in “real” life. In playing different people and allowing myself to feel things that scared me, I began to see that I wasn’t defined by the image I’d created for myself–a nerdy, prudish academic. I got more comfortable with the possibility of taking risks and being able to recover if I failed. I got the courage to change my life, pursue happiness, and write math romance novels. And for that, I’ll be forever indebted to Dad’s Garage.

I’m headed over to their Kickstarter page now to pay back some of that debt 🙂

Becoming a writer (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this post, I discussed activities one usually does individually to become a writer (reading, writing, rewriting/editing). Today, I’m back to tackle the activities that involve other people (training, spending time with other writers, business). Again, here’s my model for becoming a writer:

writingcomponentsWhen I started the process of writing my novel, I would have characterized myself as good at writing. Similarly, the first time my husband and I took a ballroom dance class, I went in thinking I was a good dancer. In both cases, I think it’s fair to say I had a natural ability. But I didn’t go from my first dance lesson to performing on Dancing with the Stars, and I would never have landed a book contract with the first draft of my novel (let’s hope I have better luck with future drafts!).

With ballroom dance, I had to learn about posture, rhythm, and movement. I had to learn the steps. With writing, I had to learn the guidelines (e.g., show versus tell). Some view these guidelines as overly restrictive (“there are no rules!”), but for me, learning them has helped me tell my story more effectively.

My thinking is this: people have been telling stories since the dawn of man, and along the way, through our collective wisdom, we’ve figured out some principles for storytelling. Why waste time trying to rediscover these on my own or pursue an alternate strategy that has a much lower probability of success? These principles are principles for a reason, they’ve worked.

So here’s what I’ve done to learn about writing and to promote myself as a writer:

1. Training

Prior to beginning my novel, my formal training in fiction writing consisted of a creative writing class I took my junior year of high school and then repeated during my senior year because I liked it so much.

Since I’ve rediscovered writing, I’ve found classes, workshops, and seminars to be a great place to learn about writing, especially after I’d done some writing on my own. In particular, I finished the first draft of my novel in July of last year, and in the fall, I took a six-week class on novel writing through Emory Continuing Education. Taking the class before I wrote the novel probably would have helped me to avoid some of the worst mistakes I made in the first draft (e.g., head jumping), but taking it after I’d been struggling for a while was gratifying because I could apply what I was learning in the class directly to my novel and see the improvement (e.g., replacing all the crazy dialogue tags I’d used with “he said”).

In addition to the class at Emory, I’ve attended workshops and seminars offered by two Atlanta-based writing organizations I belong to, Georgia Romance Writers and The Atlanta Writers Club. Also, I spent an enlightening weekend at the Tucson Festival of Books, where there were a number of sessions aimed at writers. Sometimes the workshops are duds, but overall they’ve been useful and a worthwhile investment of my time and money.

I’ve amassed a small collection of books on writing. My writing improved substantially after I read Stein on Writing by Sol Stein and Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne and King (I noticed a difference and so did my writing group). Other books I’d recommend: Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, Stephen King’s On Writing, and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Day to day, I prefer reading on an e-reader, but for these references, I like having hard copies.

Along with training in the particular form you are trying to master (for me, novel writing), I would suggest pursuing training in some other art form to get you thinking about story in a different way and to help you recharge. I’ve been taking improv lessons for about a year and a half now (at Dad’s Garage and The Brink Improv). These have been invaluable to my writing mostly because what makes for an interesting scene in improv (an action oriented scene with strong characters who have an emotional connection) also makes for a good chapter in a book. Also, improv allows me to inhabit characters in a way that is physically intimate. My body becomes their body, my voice their voice. And with improv, I have the opportunity to play a lot of characters, explore a lot of different worlds, and to quickly see what works and what doesn’t in a scene. Novel writing is a much longer slog, but I take what I learn in improv and apply it to the novel (e.g., not resolving conflict too quickly, having characters do things instead of just talking about doing them, and being willing to adapt the story and let go of things that aren’t working).

2. Spending time with other writers 

Probably the single most important thing I’ve done to spur productivity on my book is join a writing group. I meet with a group of writers, who are working on novels of a similar nature, every other week. We trade chapters in advance of the meeting, send feedback, and then discuss the feedback at the meeting. This process directly benefits my writing because my critique partners tell me what they like and dislike about my manuscript. Also, things get written because I want to have something to send to the group. There are indirect benefits as well. Notably, critiquing the manuscripts of the other writers in my group has helped to become a better editor of my own work.

I’m lucky to live in Atlanta where the live literary scene is thriving, giving me the opportunity to attend literary events and hang out with other writers at least once a week. As is probably evident from the length of these two posts on how to become a writer, I love talking about writing! For the most part, writers are interested in having conversations that I think might bore my other friends (What? You don’t want to hear me vaguely describe my plotting issues?). The Atlanta lit scene, in particular events like Write Club Atlanta, Naked City, Carapace, and Stories on the Square, made me want to be a writer (something about the applause a person receives after sharing a story). And now that I’ve become a writer, I go to these same places to find my role models. I also attend the monthly meetings of my local professional organization, the Georgia Romance Writers, where there are a ton of published authors writing in my genre. The great part about belonging to these communities is that I have people to consult when questions arise (e.g., how do I decide what editors to meet with at writing conferences).

3. Business

This is the part of becoming a writer I dreaded most. It’s not enough that I write, I have to market myself? That’s so corporate and icky and antithetical to my art. Okay, I never call it my art. And as an economics major in college, I discovered I’m not really anti-corporate. The ickiness is fear. How do I convince people to like me?

The most useful resource that I’ve come across so far in helping me develop my author platform (author speak for marketing strategy) is Kristen Lamb’s Rise of The Machines: Human Authors in a Digital World. There’s a ton of useful information in this book on engaging with social media, but the thing I appreciate about Lamb’s approach is her focus on human connection. Reading this book changed how I interact with people on Facebook and Twitter, and it gave me the courage to restart and sustain this blog. Because it’s necessary as an author, especially in the genre I’m writing in, to have a social media presence.

I’ve already mentioned the two local organizations I’m a member of in Atlanta: Georgia Romance Writers and The Atlanta Writers Club. I’m also a member of a national professional organization, Romance Writers of America. These organizations offer workshops aimed at professional development, and they also organize writing conferences where attendees have the opportunity to meet with editors and agents. I attended my first Atlanta Writers Conference this past May and had my query letter, synopsis, and first three chapters critiqued by an agent. She gave me clear feedback on areas where I could improve, and implementing the changes she recommended took my manuscript to another level.

Other aspects of the business side of writing I’m currently working are setting reasonable goals and sticking to deadlines. For me, that’s meant making progress on the novel and continuing to develop my social media presence. For other writers I know, it’s balancing working on novels and shorter fiction pieces. Whatever the goal is, it’s good to have a plan.

So that’s what I’ve done over the past year to become a writer. I don’t claim to know everything, but I’ve been intentional about this process, so hopefully what I have to share is useful to others embarking on this career.


If you haven’t read it yet, check out Part 1 of this post. 

Ways I’m like my mom: performing

My mom inspired my love for the stage. When I was in grade school, she would direct our school plays and talent shows. Sometimes we would have a script, but most of the stuff was student led. My mom would start the rehearsals with improv games, and eventually we’d come up with sketches and dance routines as a group. I remember playing Cousin Itt in an Addams Family sketch, a mummy in a “Walk Like an Egyptian” dance routine, and one of the most feared nuns in my Catholic grade school’s history. The shows were silly, fun, and empowering for us kids since we played a major role in creating the sketches.

Before I was born and when I was very young, my mom was part of an improv troupe in Cincinnati. She told me recently that she was once in a scene where she pretended to be George Carlin’s pregnant mother parachuting from a great height. So now I know my first improv role: George Carlin as a fetus.

Something that has always impressed me about my mom is her ability to set people at ease. Even if she’s not performing in the traditional sense, she still has a way of entertaining a crowd with stories. I’m glad to be like her in that respect.

A photo of my mom from her improv days:

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Me performing improv with my group Shark Party at the SweetWater 420 Fest:

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Reconnect with things you love and find yourself

It’s hard to become not something when you’ve been that something for a long time. It’s hard to break up with your first career. For the record, it wasn’t demography, it was me, and I hope someday we can be friends.

But for now, like the fallout after my first serious romantic relationship, I’m left wondering what went wrong and whether I can ever commit myself to something again. Can I say with conviction that I’m a something like I stated I was a demographer?

I’m not not a demographer now. I still know a lot about demography and am intrigued by demographic questions, but I’m not practicing. Thus, the label chafes a bit.

The process of redefining myself started months prior to my departure from academia. It was during the crying time that I began to search for something that I could become. I looked back to what made me happy before I started down the road to academia and pinpointed college as a time when I shut down my creative endeavors and lost touch with a fundamental part of myself.

Writing was the first way I reconnected. In the spring of 2012, I started attending one of Atlanta’s storytelling shows, Carapace. I wrote stories about my life and performed them. I shared my failures, my triumphs, my insecurities. I’d always seen the past as a fixed thing, but storytelling taught me that the past was much more fluid. I could choose how to tell my story. I’m choosing how to reveal it to you now. I’m empowered. I’m a storyteller. I’m a writer.

I’m an improviser. I asked for improv lessons for Christmas in 2012. I felt stupid putting it on my list, scared of revealing this desire to my family. Fear has held me back from a lot of things. In college, I would practice sometimes with Ohio Wesleyan’s improv troupe, the Babbling Bishops, but I was too afraid of rejection to audition to be a member. In my first improv class at Dad’s Garage, the instructor asked whether any of us hoped to perform improv on stage someday. I didn’t raise my hand because I didn’t want to admit I had that goal. I didn’t want to fail. Luckily, improv is a great way to learn to accept failure, celebrate it even. I failed, I learned.

I perform with two improv troupes now: Shark Party and !mprov (pronounced Bangprov). I’m writing a mathematical romance novel. I’ve performed at many of Atlanta’s great live lit and storytelling events including CarapaceNaked City, Stories on the Square, The Iceberg, and Write Club Atlanta.

I’m an improvisor, a storyteller, a writer, but it’s difficult for me to define myself by activities that don’t pay. I’ve long judged art as an impractical pursuit while secretly wanting to be an artist.

After I started writing my novel last July, I would get depressed whenever I went to a bookstore. Shelves full of books that inspire wonder in my reader self spell doom in my writer self. There are already so many books! (And loads more that never got published.) Why would mine matter? What contribution could I possibly make?

I’ve always been more comfortable as a big fish in a small pond.

Approaching the problem from a demographic angle helped to quell my despair. Yes, book writing is a risky endeavor. The numerator, the number of people who are super successful, is small. The denominator, the number of people who pursue it, is large. I may never get published. I may never make money.

But there is something to be said for being part of the denominator even if I never make it into the numerator. Writing a book is hard – plugging away at it every day, trying to keep the story consistent, wondering if I will ever finish. So while shelves stocked full of books intimidate me, they also give me hope. If millions of people have chosen to do this despite the difficulty and succeeded,* then maybe I have made a good choice – not necessarily because my book will have a big impact but because it brings me joy. I’m part of the community of writers, storytellers, and improvisers who pursue these often monetarily unprofitable endeavors because they enjoy it and because they can entertain others by doing it.

I’m an improviser. I do this for myself. I do this to make people laugh and make people feel things, sometimes things that scare them.

I’m a storyteller. I do this for myself. I do this in hopes that sharing my burden lessens the weight others carry. I do this so we all fell less alone.

I’m a writer. I do this for myself. I do this because I think falling in love is one of the best things in life and romance novels allow the reader to experience these emotions vicariously. I do this because I think love and sexuality should be celebrated.

I’m an artist. I create things. I do this because it makes me happy.


*Google estimates from 2010 indicate close to 130 million books exist. Regarding my use of the word chosen, presumably a small number of authors did not choose to write books but were forced to. Some might take this footnote as evidence that I’m still a demographer. I probably am.

I’m afraid to just do it

I attended some really great writing workshops at the Tucson Festival of Books this past weekend.  One of the main themes to come out across panels was how fear holds us back.  

I’m often afraid.  

I haven’t posted on this blog for two weeks not for lack of content or lack of time but because I worry about making things just right before I post them.  I worry about saying something that will come across as unintelligent or controversial.  I worry about saying something that will come back to haunt me years later.  I worry that something I post will go viral.  I worry that no one cares at all about what I’m writing.  

I worry.  But I’ve found that the best way of addressing my fears is often to just do the thing I’m afraid of.  

So I’m just going to do it.  That is, I’m going to reflect on the importance of just doing it improv and writing.  The principle isn’t complicated although it can be difficult to implement.

In improv, if you find yourself talking about doing something in a scene, just do it.  For example, if you start planning a party, fast forward to the party.  The audience would rather see someone jump out of a cake than hear you talk about someone jumping out of a cake.  Action! 

In writing, I’ve come across this when authors are plotting something their characters will do.  For example, in a lead up to a bank robbery, the characters might discuss how they are going to carry out the robbery.  My inclination is that it is better to move most of this detail to section where you show the actual bank robbery unless the conversation highlights some important character traits.  Again, action!  

In both of these cases, the hesitation to take action is rooted in fear.  Can I really jump into this pretend shark tank on stage?  Can I really write this scene where the bank robbers’ plans get foiled?  Fear holds us back from committing to our choices.  

So I’ve just done it, but I’m still a little afraid.  What’s fear holding you back from?   

 

A Flexible Agenda

So you’ve got an idea!  That’s great.  Improv is all about making offers, and writing fiction involves following a stroke of inspiration from one point to the next until you’ve created a thing.  It’s fun to create things, and it helps to have a plan.  But just like a vacation that’s been scheduled down to the last minute can be stressful, adhering to a strict agenda in your creative work can be stifling.

In improv, you have to be willing to either kill or adapt your ideas based on the offers of your scene partner and the needs of the story.  For example, during my grad show at Dad’s Garage, I was in a two person scene inspired by the word camping.  My scene partner lay down on the floor like he was in a sleeping bag and closed his eyes.  Assuming I was his girlfriend, I knelt close beside him.

“Morning sunshine,” I said.

“Good morning, Mom!” he replied.

And just like that, I became his mother.  I had to let my idea go and adapt to this new role he had assigned me.

In improv, the main negotiation you have to do is with your scene partner.  Everything is happening quickly, live on stage, and you’ve got to align your ideas with your partner’s to move the scene forward. Writing fiction, in contrast, is a much longer process, and one where you generally call the shots behind closed doors.  Still, there are a couple of ways that becoming overly invested in an agenda can hinder your writing.

First, if you’ve outlined and planned every step of your story, then you might resist making changes when the need arises.  You’ll feel this tug in your brain, a voice saying things like “this character isn’t working,” “this chapter is going nowhere,” or “these actions are unrealistic,” and part of you will fight back, “no, this is in the plan.”  But it’s important to throw things out that aren’t working, especially in the rewriting stage.  While this can be demoralizing (the file of discarded text from my novel is nearly 30,000 words and the original draft was 50,000 words), these efforts are usually rewarded.

It’s also important not to cling too tightly to your agenda when receiving feedback on your work.  Critique partners provide great support.  They help you stick to deadlines and tell you what’s working and what’s not working in your story; however, this feedback can sometimes feel like a personal attack on one’s creativity, intelligence, etc. even when it’s constructive.  You don’t have to cater to every demand a critique partner makes, but if your reaction is to always defend your choice and refuse their advice, then you’ll likely lose your critique partner and the opportunity to improve your work.

Don’t let your ego stand in the way of the story.  Adapt, evolve, thrive.

Conflict and Character Development

This is the first of what I hope will be a series of posts about the ways improv informs my writing and vice versa.  Today, I discuss how hasty conflict resolution can impede character development.

For background, I started taking improv classes at Dad’s Garage in Atlanta in January 2013, and I wrote the first draft of my novel NaNoWriMo style in July 2013 (i.e. I completed a 50,000 word draft in a month).  I began revising my novel that August while I was taking a class on Character Development at Dad’s.  In this class, the instructor cautioned us against solving problems too quickly in our scenes, and he encouraged us to instead spend time exploring the implications of the conflict, especially for our characters.  His advice helped me see that I was rushing to solve conflicts in my novel as well and that my characters were emotionally flat as a result.

So what does resolving conflict too quickly look like?  For example, consider a two person scene where one person gets bitten by a poisonous snake:

Dude 1: Ah snake!

Dude 2: Eeeek!

(Snake bites Dude 1)

Dude 1: Oh no, man!  I’m going to die.  I just want to tell you…

Dude 2:  Don’t worry.  I’ve got antivenom.

(Dude 2 takes antivenom out of his back pocket and administers it to Dude 1)

Dude 1: Thanks man.

Dude 2: What were you going to tell me?

Dude 1: Never mind.  We don’t have to confront our feelings.  Everything is fine.

Maybe these two dudes go on to encounter a host of dangerous animals in the jungle, each one more lethal than the last, and Dude 2 has the antidote for each one.  That might be funny, but a more emotionally compelling scene would be one where these two characters confront the impending death of Dude 1 and use this opportunity to explore their relationship.  Perhaps Dude 1 has a deathbed confessional to make to Dude 2 (he’s secretly his father, his long lost fraternal twin, or the guy that’s always upvoting his posts on reddit).  Maybe Dude 2 talks about how empty his life will be without Dude 1 since they’ve been friends since they were in cub scouts together, met online playing World of Warcraft in college, or started hiking the Appalachian Trail together a week ago.  What do they mean to each other?  Why is this conflict so devastating?  These are the types of questions you want to answer – not just finding a solution to the snakebite issue.

I’m writing a romance novel, and the way conflict plays into these types of stories is that something is usually keeping the hero and heroine apart.  In the first draft of my novel, I’d identified barriers to a romantic relationship, but I ignored them and let my characters get together right away because they were attracted to each other.  Now, attraction is powerful, but as I began to revise the novel, I realized that my characters needed to respect the factors that were keeping them apart (to build suspense) and they needed to experience an emotional change that would make them willing to get together despite these factors (thus creating character arc).

There are a couple guidelines of good storytelling at play here: (1) once you’ve stated something is true, it is, and (2) actions should have consequences.  For an example of the first, what if halfway through Romeo & Juliet, Shakespeare decided that the Capulets and Montagues didn’t really hate each other thus lowering the stakes on Romeo and Juliet’s relationship? Not as compelling, right?  Instead, Shakespeare raises the stakes when Romeo slays Tybalt.  For an example of the latter, what if Romeo wasn’t punished for this?  What if it didn’t make it even harder for him and Juliet to be together?  We might have had a happy ending then, but the audience would question Shakespeare’s reality.

One of the joys of writing fiction and doing improv is constructing new realities.  You make the rules and you can break them, but if you don’t show respect for the boundaries of the world you’ve created, then neither will your audience.  Sometimes it hurts to watch our characters suffer when they are dealing with conflict, but often we’ll get the chance to see them grow.  And in the long run, their resiliency and transformation will be more emotionally satisfying than stepping in and saving them right away.