Debts I’ve Paid to Be a Writer

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On David McDonald‘s blog, I wrote a post about the debts I’ve paid to become a writer. I hope that by sharing my story, it will help other writers who have experienced something similar, understand and take comfort in the fact that you are not alone. Paying for My Passion (Valentinelli) is the kind of post that’s both personal and cathartic to write, but I feel that it was an important exercise for both me and you. You see, the one thing I’ve learned throughout all of my experiences, is that there’s a difference between feeling alone and being alone. Abusers in any form, whether they be domestic or not, focus on isolation as a means of control.

For writers like myself, who are naturally introverted to varying degrees, this can be disastrous to our psyches. I need to recharge my creative batteries by spending time by myself, but at the same time, it was hugely important for me to understand I wasn’t alone in my experiences. They are two, very different things, and I fear that sometimes the nuances are conflated simply because when you’re an introvert you’re already told spending time by yourself, whether that’s going it alone to a movie or a coffee shop, is “anti-social”.

If my post resonates with your experiences on any level, I want you to know that I support you. I do. Being a writer is both a curse and a blessing, especially in this society; the ability to tell stories and use words to relay information is a gift we have, but at the same time? We all need to eat.


On Writing and Bad Stress

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Today I want to talk about stress. So, here’s a funny thing: I think there’s good stress and bad stress. Good stress for me is an exciting new deadline! Revisions that have to be done right now! Feedback that has to be incorporated! Bad stress, on the other hand, deals with everything that isn’t related to writing. It either originates from a non-person related outside source (e.g. like a shortage of funds or not having enough dark chocolate) OR… OR… OR… it comes from me either seeking or listening to other people’s opinions/drama–and there is no shortage of either. Not all of them (opinions) are valuable, and most of them aren’t related to “me” at all. Typically, they fall into one of two categories in my experience: “This methodology worked for me (or for a writer I met), so I assume it’ll work for everybody else.” And “I’m not sure what full-time writers do, but here’s a bunch of opinions about that based on my romanticized views of [insert famous author here].”

I realize this may come as a shock, but writing is work. Like any other job, writing can be a calling and, in my case, it definitely is. But, how to move forward, how to take on/find more mini-jobs, how to build a career… That is where my head needs to be, and where it’s always been when I’m not suffering from bad stress. I realize this line of thinking, to treat writing like work and an actual job, is unsexy. It’s plain. It’s vanilla. It’s yet another cat picture, and not a good one at that. But, if I don’t take it seriously and treat writing as a job, I don’t write, because then it’s not a priority for me. Then it’s a hobby that I do whenever I feel like it, and that is hugely damaging to my career.

What I do about Bad Stress

Realization time! Every rotten moment I have had as a writer originates from bad stress, and the vast majority of those moments come from what I couldn’t control. Why am I not beating myself up over it? 1) That’s in the past. 2) I can only manage what I can control, but the number one thing I need to do is write. Period. And 3) Encountering bad stressors is normal, because it happens to everybody. What matters, then, is what I do next. How do I use those moments to inspire me to keep at it?

To this end, I use the K.I.S.S. system which I am quite fond of. I use K.I.S.S. as a motivational tool, rather than as an excuse to sacrifice quality or take shortcuts, etc. Here’s what I do. Ready? It’s so simple, I probably sound like an idiot who mixed anchovies and oranges and peanut butter together with vinegar. Ew! Anyway, here goes: I come up with slogans to cheer myself on.

  • Real artists ship
  • Writers write
  • Can’t get paid unless I hit Send!
  • Want to be a novelist? Finish my novels.
  • Want to be hired for comics/novels/etc.? Finish my comics/novels/etc. on spec.
  • Create > consume.

Or, alternatively, I come up with a zillion mini-goals I can sneak in throughout the day that I know I can achieve. This helps reduce bad stress related to feeling like I’m not getting the non-writing bits done, provided my priorities are in place. Notice, none of these goals are meant to take longer than an hour. I am a mini-tasking self-proselytizing evangelist, as breaking up larger goals into smaller chunks really helps me get through the day.

  • Clean my desk
  • Free write up to 3 pages
  • Read a short story by somebody else
  • Spend 30 minutes re-organizing my computer files
  • Spend 30 minutes cutting down my e-mails to less than 50
  • Spend 30 minutes researching new markets
  • Spend 30 minutes e-mailing folks I haven’t talked to in a while
  • Spend 60 minutes on a word sprint!

Notice how all of this is to ensure I stay on task and write? A focus on word count and production doesn’t mean I don’t care about building relationships or forming networks, etc. This is all about reducing bad stress by ensuring I don’t get distracted, as words are my stock and trade. ‘Cause when I don’t write? That is the worst possible stress of all. That’s when I don’t have any reason to plan for a career, because I have nothing without dem words.


Looking Ahead for Media/Tie-In! [My Book Launch Week]

Gorramn Dictionary

All this week, I’ve been celebrating the release of Firefly: The Gorramn Shiniest Dictionary and Phrasebook in the ‘Verse from Titan Books. And, today’s the last day! Each day, I’ve been posting about an aspect of working as a media/tie-in writer. I hope you enjoy this series of posts! Interested in the dictionary, but are still on the fence? Be sure to read Take Five with Monica Valentinelli on Suvudu.com for some interesting tidbits about the book and my process. If you’re keen on learning more about me, then check out my interview with GeekDad, too!

Since today is the last (exciting) day in a series of posts about media/tie-in, I want to talk about my thoughts on the future of this style of storytelling and production. The interesting thing about media/tie-in, is that the stories come “after the fact” in a lot of cases, because they’re driven by a game or a movie in a lot of cases. Comics, on the other hand, could be painted with a broader brush since they intersect with movies and existing storylines, but they could also simply be based on existing characters. Though that is true for all media/tie-ins to some degree, it’s especially true with comics in my experience.

Anyway, what I’m trying to note here is that the point of origin for a story will heavily influence where media/tie-in is going. Where I think/hope it’s going, is to address multiculturism and gender balance to line up with the fact that original fiction is also heading in that direction as well. This, I feel, is very exciting–more voices is a good thing. But, in some ways, media/tie-in will have a bit of a catch up depending upon the casting for films or video game character representation or what-have-you. There appears to be a fear that the general public will not embrace a female superhero or a minority/underrepresented character in a movie, as that’s the only explanation that I can come up with for the recent rash of whitewashed characters and the Oscars So White controversy. Ghost in the Shell and the Sorcerer Supreme in the new Doctor Strange movie are two of the most recent examples of this. Since there are so few minority/underrepresented actors featured on blockbuster films to begin with, I see this as having an impact across all media/tie-in–much like the fact that many actresses over 40 can no longer find work or roles for their age brackets.

Mind you, this entire conversation is scary for a lot of people, because this is about change. Change is frightening, especially if there’s a perception that this change is reductive and it will mean the new stories suck. I view this approach to be about adding and enhancing to an existing rich tapestry of stories, about making more art, about making better art, about giving readers more choices. It’s a big ocean out there; not a pond–you never know what will happen! Look at Valiant Comics’ runaway (and surprise) hit Faith, just as one example. Here’s a plus-sized superheroine who is not your usual fare, who nailed an existing need: for plus-sized women to see themselves in a positive light. Fantastic, right? New stories, new characters, and experimenting with storytelling mediums should thrill fans, not terrify them. What’s not to love about every kid or adult being about to look up at that big screen, or at a comic book, or dive into a novel with a huge smile on their face to say “They’re just like me! They’re the hero/heroine and they’re just like me!”?

Now the thing is: I may be a writer, because this is my calling, but it is my job to find ways for publishers, agents, etc. to say “Yes!” to my work and to working with me. It is my conscious choice to recognize that there are problems, but seek solutions through the aspects I can control on the projects I’m attached to. I lose so much (time, money, etc.) if I don’t spend the bulk of my time creating, and being a writer means I have to write. Period. Multiculturism, however, is important to me because it’s reflective not only of the world we live in, but the world I live in. Sometimes, this means I buy books or comics from lesser-known authors and artists. Sometimes, I might suggest other writers who specialize in subjects or cultures to bring on board. Sometimes, I might add more characters or sub-plots so the minorities aren’t always the villains. (e.g. A common solution to the need for more diverse casting is to make the antags a minority that are then defeated.) Sometimes, I might look for positive representations in the art, when art notes fall under my purview. These are small things, sure, but that is all I can do. Again, this entire conversation circles back to doing what I can in my role while still finishing, shipping, and publishing projects on time as much as possible. Talking about a thing isn’t the same as doing it, at least for me, and I’m aware that my focus needs to be on my work instead of getting pissed off on the Internet. Meeting deadlines, making my word count, exceeding expectations, delivering quality–these are all the other reasons I need people to say “Yes!” to my work as well.

Anyway, I hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s series of posts to celebrate the release of Firefly: The Gorramn Shiniest Dictionary and Phrasebook in the ‘Verse. Thanks for reading this week and supporting my work. Have a fantastic day!

Canon, Characters, Continuity, Fans, and Creators [My Book Launch Week]

Gorramn Dictionary

All this week, I’m celebrating the release of Firefly: The Gorramn Shiniest Dictionary and Phrasebook in the ‘Verse from Titan Books. Each day, I’m going to post about an aspect of working as a media/tie-in writer. I hope you enjoy this series of posts! Interested in the dictionary, but are still on the fence? Be sure to read Take Five with Monica Valentinelli on Suvudu.com for some interesting tidbits about the book and my process. If you’re keen on learning more about me, then check out my interview with GeekDad, too!

For today’s blog post, I’m going to talk about an aspect of media/tie-in that tends to generate love/hate discussions more so than answering the question about whether or not ketchup belongs on macaroni-and-cheese. Phew! I should probably avoid the topic entirely, as conversations tend to be rather heated about the subject, but I’m going to do my best not to be inflammatory as that is not the point of this post.

Fans, Consumers, Customers, and Fandom

To be a fan, in my mind, is to simply like or love something to varying degrees. That’s it. I don’t believe there is such a thing as the “one true fan” for many reasons, but much of it for me comes down to the difference between fan and customer. A fan has an emotional response to a character, story, etc. You can be a fan, then, of Zatanna or Star Wars or The Snorks. A customer, on the other hand, is the person who values a title by spending money or time to acquire a title (buying, renting, borrowing, checking out from a library). You don’t always have to own something in order to like it, however, and this tends to hold true if there’s a lot of product. A reader (or viewer/player/etc.), then, is the person who consumes that “something”.

Note: I didn’t use the term consumer here, because it’s often conflated with customer. Here, I specifically mean the cycle of going to a comic book store and buying a comic (customer), reading it (reader), and then loving a character (fan). Rinse. Repeat.

Though there is a lot of overlap, these three types aren’t always the same person, nor do they always and consistently relate to one another in the same way. The longer the character/story has been around, the more likely there are going to be differences between them. You can buy a comic without being a fan for someone else–especially if it’s for your kid. You can be a fan of Adam Wests’ Batman, but aren’t a fan of Michael Keaton’s. You can love the so-called golden age of comics, but you spend your time reading contemporary comics even though you don’t like them as much. For older properties, time and the amount of materials produced are both huge factors.

Fandom, then, I view to be a bunch of people with shared interests. Sometimes, they form communities and actively share their thoughts or show their feelings for characters/stories with each other. Sometimes they buy All The ThingsTM; sometimes they make other things based on their likes and loves. Sometimes, they express themselves in a public form. Sometimes, however, they don’t. Being a member of a community, to me, isn’t a requirement to be a fan, but my point here is that “fandom” is not a monolithic, contained, and identifiable group of people simply because there are many groups and, while some are organized, not all of them are. They’re not always “visible”, either, for a variety of reasons.

Part of the reason why it’s such a shock that women, for example, play video games and buy comics and read/write fantasy novels isn’t because women haven’t always been interested in these things. Nor, have female characters always been approached the same way, either. Ripley. Sarah Connor. Wilma Deering–even Mrs. Peltzer from Gremlins. The internet has simply made female fans more visible, because it’s given us an access point to be able to buy the things we want without any grief or harassment. The same holds true for underrepresented or marginalized people as well; they didn’t just “show up”. Remember: people tend to go where they feel welcome especially if they no longer feel isolated. Connecting through fandom, through that shared interest or love for a hero/heroine, is a strong common interest. Thus, either the larger (known) groups or professionally organized events, companies, etc. will actively and consciously work towards inclusion, or the people who aren’t being treated well will either abandon fandom entirely or make their own space. After all, what is fandom but a collection of many different kinds of people?

Again, I feel this [fans] all goes back to a single (or series) of moments caused by a powerful emotional connection with a character or a story. And, all fans–regardless of who they are or where they’re from–wish to see themselves represented carefully and appropriately in their fandoms. Storytellers, like myself, are keen on seeking ways to create new fans and satisfy existing fans by doing just that.

Canon vs. Continuity

Many of the discussions become heated with respect to canon. In a fan’s mind, I propose that typically the version of the character/story that they fell in love with is the official version. Or, alternatively, whatever they viewed last. The canon originates not from the entire body of work, but from that portion of the work the fan read, played, or viewed. For them, that canon sets their expectations for the next thing they’ll consume in that universe. These assumptions will vary widely, of course, but I do see them tied to a number of factors: age of property, which iteration of a character/story they first encountered, gaps between publishing cycles, amount of material to consume, etc. In some cases, this becomes more challenging to navigate because Wonder Woman, for example, has been around since 1941. There are many people alive today who have lived through all iterations of her character–so who’s to say which version is “the” authoritative or most popular one with respect to the fans?

Now, the thing about canon, is that in my experiences it tends to be tied to an individual’s emotions and memories. Sometimes, but not always, this means that a fan might misremember the details of the original story–which is human nature and completely understandable. But, emotions aren’t based on facts, they’re feelings that are generated from some “thing” that touched that person, rather than the entirety of a body of work–or even a single film. I had this experience when I was working on Firefly, because some folks believed that Reavers were a huge part of the TV show. They weren’t; they didn’t even show up in the final episode as the crew was navigating deeper into the Blue Sun System. After several conversations I discovered that what they remembered, however, were Reavers from the Serenity movie. But, to them, that’s canon and that is what set their expectations.

Continuity and canon go hand-in-hand, and sometimes the two words are used interchangeably. Canon, however, is something that’s established by producing a body of work, which then becomes the canon. In a business-y sense, sometimes canon is also used as a means of reflecting the official details of an IP (setting/characters/events/logos/etc.) that first appeared in that work. Continuity, however, is focused on which of those elements will remain the same and, most importantly, what can be changed to tell a story using the same characters. Sure, continuity is about drawing an unbroken line through a series of comics or what-have-you but, from a creative perspective, I also see how continuity shapes the boundaries of a character’s identity as opposed to a pile of characteristics that form a costume.

Please also note: I’m not going to do another deep dive into licensing, but I did have a thought I wanted to add about movie remakes in particular. Whenever a remake is announced, I keep hearing how Hollywood doesn’t have any new ideas–or a fan’s childhood is destroyed because the character they love is being remade. This is a visceral, emotional reaction to an existing feeling, because that change is internalized as a threat. Of course, remakes occur due to the mechanisms in place for a license. My point here is that fans don’t care about the business-y details, and that is something I have to consider when weighing feedback and criticism. The only thing companies can measure is how much is spent on a particular project; if fans expect to hate a movie, but they see it anyway and their fears are fulfilled? All the data the company has to go on is how much money that movie made. Occasionally, the dollars earned send the wrong message, especially if the work wasn’t up to par or if there are entrenched ideas about… Female superhero movies. Ahem. Just as an example.

Okay, end segue…

Factoring in Creators

For the purposes of talking about creators, I need to table fandom for a bit. I’m going to relate how canon (e.g. the full body of work) and continuity (e.g. the continuous details of characters/events/settings in a single work or series of them) affect what I do.

Whenever I start a media/tie-in project, I ask a lot of questions because I need to know how much creative freedom I have. Some publishers are very clear on what they want/need/expect, while others are trying to figure that out based on the plots or storylines writers propose. I can channel my own fandoms into what I’m proposing but, at the end of the day, I am here to reach as many readers as possible. Please note: I did say “readers” as opposed to “fans.” I love fans, I really do. But, a fan who is not invested in the story I’m telling won’t have an emotional reaction based on the material I’ve produced. A reader, on the other hand, will. So, I tend to focus on readers (who are hopefully also fans) by figuring out who this comic is for. For larger IPs, figuring out where my constraints are helps me get a clearer sense of what materials fans might already be familiar with. If the answer from my editor is “I don’t know. I’m more concerned about publishing a good story!” then I focus more strongly on something else: the core of a character’s identity and how the story impacts them. Who a character is, deep down, is crucial to offering an appealing story for fans–because this is key to expectations. Change the core identity of a character, and almost certainly a fan will become upset.

Tying that back into fans, themselves… In my experiences, fans have expectations based on both the stories and the characters they love. But, many fans also want to see themselves in a story, too, so they’re more open to casting changes like Oded Fehr as Doctor Strange or, in a “real world” scenario, Daisy Ridley as the protagonist in The Force Awakens. For other fans, however, changing canon threatens their familiarity with a character/story and challenges their feelings in a way that makes them uncomfortable. Again, the longer a property has been around, the more likely this is to happen, but it’s also tied to other factors related to entrenched (stupid) stereotypes. Nobody, and I mean nobody, should have to prove they like a thing or that they exist or that they deserve to be treated with dignity.

As a creator, I feel it’s definitely a challenge to strike the balance between satisfying fans and the publisher—especially since it’s impossible to make everybody happy. But, I also feel that the longer a property has been around, the more opportunities we have to experiment and tell new stories, too. This, to me, isn’t intimidating or scary or frightening. Telling new stories is very exciting! It’s a hard thing, trying to balance the expectations of everybody involved, and that’s partly why I love working in media/tie-in. Make no mistake, however: without readers willing to invest in my stories, without customers willing to buy them, without fans falling in love with characters all over again–I would not be able to do what I do.

How Writing Media/Tie-In Has Impacted My Original Works [My Book Launch Week]

Gorramn Dictionary

All this week, I’m celebrating the release of Firefly: The Gorramn Shiniest Dictionary and Phrasebook in the ‘Verse from Titan Books. Each day, I’m going to post about an aspect of working as a media/tie-in writer. I hope you enjoy this series of posts!

One of the most interesting aspects of working on other properties is that, over time, I’ve developed a number of skills that I’ve ported over to my own work. Before working on media/tie-in, for example, I was a bit of a pantser because I didn’t have a deadline. Well, I had deadlines when I was in college, and I thrived on them. But, I didn’t think of deadlines the same way I do today. Now, when I get a deadline, I know how important that date is to the overall process of publishing a book, game, comic, etc. Aggressive deadlines also push me to create my best work; when I write under pressure I tend to pound out drafts left and right. Said drafts can be (and are) revised, but aggressive deadlines prevent me from revising as I write. Or, in other words: I cannot revise a blank page, so typing “The End” is better than staring at a blank screen.

In truth, I can no longer work without a deadline. I just can’t. If I don’t have a due date, the project goes into the ether, and I pick at it when I feel I’m free to do so. When I’m a developer or managing editor for a project, I get to decide those dates up front–which is a lot trickier than you might think. Without them, I stress out more than if I had them.

Assessing Word Count

Now, as I am not a cylon or a typing monkey sitting at my machine, what I have the tendency to do is plan for a major output of word count after assessing my schedule for a set period of time (typically three-to-six months). If I push a heavy (5,000 words a day or more) output on a consistent basis, I know my brain well enough to know I’ll need a break to completely cut off internet access and decompress in some fashion. However, if I average out my word count to 3,000 words a day, instead, then I can attach those words to my projects and keep rolling along.

Unfortunately, there are some things that throw me off schedule. I call them “zombie projects”. These are the projects that need to be proofed or are suddenly revived after months of silence. The state of the zombie projects typically have some progress on them already, so I don’t need to reinvent the wheel. However, they can eat away (Hah! Hah!) at my word count and how I prioritize my schedule.

Outlines, Outlines, Outlines

Word count, however, is not a measure of the completed work. Rather, a word count is a benchmark for progress! Just because I write 3,000 words doesn’t mean they’re good or valuable words. Sometimes, they have to go into the trash. An outline, however, can and has facilitated necessary words. Of course, the outline sometimes serves as a general guideline, too, especially if I come up with a better idea. But, as a starting point? Outlines and smaller, daily milestones for word count are invaluable to my work. They help guide the shape of the work, so I’m not overthinking a story or, worse, a game.

Media/tie-ins have also impacted my work by helping me understand the value of an outline with respect to the project itself. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about: say I’m writing a novel about Mumm-Ra from Thundercats. The project stalls, but it isn’t canceled. The license ends, or the publisher/editor/etc. changes, but the contract is still viable and now I’ve got a novel due. What happens in between the time that I stopped writing on said Mumm-Ra novel to when it gets picked up again? The outline will help me not only figure out where I’ve left off, but it also gives me common ground to work with my new co-workers on the project.

Stops and starts, in particular, can be a time sink because re-familiarizing myself with where I stopped on a project makes me lose valuable writing time. Thus, I’ve begun to translate this (outlines) to my original work to address the possibility that the work will be interrupted. Since I’m writing my fiction on spec right now, there’s a good chance that I’ll need to table my own stuff. This way, I don’t feel like I have to start all over again, and I can keep making progress.

I hope you’ve enjoyed today’s post about deadlines, word count, and outlines. Shiny!

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