Love and Perfection

“We love the things we love for what they are.”

That’s from Robert Frost’s “Hyla Brook.”

Variations on the line had been bouncing around in my head for a while before my husband and fellow writer, Larry Hammer, reminded me where it came from.

I’d been thinking about Frost (without knowing it was Frost I was thinking about) because I’d been thinking about how once we reach a certain basic level of craft, writing is no longer about avoiding mistakes or carefully not doing anything wrong.

It’s about the things we do right.

No one ever loved a book, after all, simply for not making any mistakes, for all that there are (varied, individual) things that can throw each of us out of a story. But we don’t love a story just because we aren’t thrown out of it, either.

We love books for what they do, not for what they manage not to do. We love them for the thing or things that hit each of our particular story buttons, that reach out to bridge the gap between story and reader, that pull on us and make us want to or need to read on. A flawed book that does the things it does very right is far more powerful than an unflawed book that doesn’t.

None of my favorite books—the books I imprinted on as a child and teen, the books that have remained touchstones for me throughout my life—is perfect. I can see that clearly enough when I look at those books as a writer focused on craft—and that has never once stopped me from returning to those books, from treasuring them. 

We don’t love books for the things they aren’t, but for the things they are.

My bookshelves—filled with imperfect books that I adore.

But there’s more to it than that. A while back, in a stray moment when I thought I was thinking about a manuscript-in-progress, I found myself thinking instead: And the same thing is true for people.

On one level, I’d always known this. On another I hadn’t, or had forgotten, or needed to relearn it on that particular day in that particular way. People no more need to be perfect than stories do.

As writers who spend much of our time looking inward that we can become as critical of ourselves as of our stories, this is worth remembering, too. I doubt many people hold their friends and loved ones dear simply because they never make mistakes. Lack of mistakes is not the place love comes from.

We love one another for the same reason we love stories: not for what we aren’t, but for what we are.

As I dig deep to put words on the page, I find that a comforting thought.


Love and Perfection first appeared as a guest post on Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Cynsations. I find I return to it every year or two as a reminder to myself.

“Do you believe that spring will come?”

Bones of Faerie, the first book of my Bones of Faerie trilogy, is about uncontrolled growth: plants that bloom in every season, crops that fight their harvesters, trees that seek human blood and bone to root in.

[Faerie Winter Cover]

Faerie Winter, the second book of the trilogy, tells the opposite story. It’s about endless winter, failure to grow, and the fear that spring might never come.

During our current physical and psychological winter, Faerie Winter is the book I’ve been thinking about.

The story’s protagonist, Liza, is surrounded by adults who remember countless other winters, followed by countless other springs. Liza was born after the war between faeries and humans banished winter from her world, though. She’s never known anything but deadly, unbounded growth. When that growth stops at last, Liza’s first thought is about how much safer the forests have become. Later, when she realizes that those forests have also stopped producing the things humans need to survive, she has no mental roadmap for what might happen next.

When Jayce, a member of Liza’s town’s council, talks about preparing for spring planting, Liza wonders at the fact.

If he feared that the spring crops wouldn’t grow, he gave no sign. Adults believed, somewhere deep inside, that spring would come, for all that they were careful of our rations. Some part of them couldn’t imagine that green wouldn’t return to the world, as if green was something we were born to. I did not understand it. Deep inside I felt as if this gray had surely gone on forever and the forests I’d fought all my life had been merely illusions.

Not all the adults in Liza’s world share Jayce’s certainty, though. As the story progresses, Liza flees a danger that comes from beyond the dying forest with Karin, a fey survivor of the War. Karin is a plant mage, keenly aware of the changes winter has brought to the world, and she asks aloud the question that human adults have not.

The grasses sighed wearily and retreated back into the snow. “They’re not dead,” I said. “Not completely, not around you.”

“They are not dead.” Karin sounded as tired as the grasses had. “But they are dying. Tell me, Liza, do you believe that spring will come?”

Why ask me? I was no plant mage. “The adults in my town believe it.” They believed in spite of the gray trees and the gray skies, the failed crops and the too-long winter.

“So it is with the human adults in my town as well.” Karin held a hand out to the falling snow as we walked on. Snowflakes melted against her skin. “Yet I have never heard the trees so quiet. They yearn for darkness, and some have given way to it. Others slip into sleep, accepting that they may never wake. I am told this is the way of your world. It is not the way of mine. I have never known a forest that was not green. What do you believe?”

Do you believe that spring will come? It’s a question I’ve returned to many times since I wrote Faerie Winter. It’s a question I was asking before I wrote that book, too, before fiction led me, as it so often does, to put into words the things I was already saying.

Because Faerie Winter is fantasy, the question of spring’s return is not merely metaphoric. It turns out the danger of endless winter is real, and so Liza’s inner crisis is echoed by the world’s outer one. Fantasy does that, sometimes—lets us transform internal struggles into external realities so that we can face those struggles head on and in a more concrete way than other types of stories allow.

Do you believe that spring will come? Things have changed so much already—in Liza’s world, in our world. There’s no changing them back. Do we believe that forward change will continue instead, leading us on to someplace new, someplace viable, someplace where things can grow once more?

Do you believe that spring will come? There’s a strange comfort simply in putting the question into words.

On one level, I know the answer, always have known it. If I didn’t believe, deep down, that spring—that the future—would come, writing a book where spring was called into question would have been too much to bear.

On another level, I need, just as deeply, to hear the question asked, and I need to travel the hard path toward its answer, again and again, not just in the books that I’ve written but also in the countless books that I’ve read through the years, ever since I knew how to read. Stories were the thing, after all, that got me trough childhood and adolescence and all that came after. Every misunderstood kid who had adventures and saved the world and found their place in that world was, in their way, another needed answer.

An answer, and also a map—the map Liza lacks—for what the journey might look like. Spring comes. Not always easily, not always painlessly, not always as quickly as we want or as we need, but in the end and at the last. Spring comes. Deep down, I know that.

After all, I’ve taken this journey before.

Doing What You Love: Practical inspiration for writers

doingwhatyoulovecover-medium Doing What You Love: Practical Strategies for Living a Creative Life is now out in paperback! This chapbook draws on my quarter-century of writing experience to share insights and inspiration previously only available by attending one of my talks or, more recently, downloading an ebook.

It makes a great gift for any writer in your life who could use a bit of a pep talk. (Including you!)

['Taking risks, rather than being an impractical and foolhardy act, might be  one of the most practical and business-savvy things we can do.']

Available wherever books are sold:
Amazon (bundle with the ebook for 99 cents more)
IndieBound
Barnes & Noble
Or visit your favorite local bookstore and ask them to order you a copy!

A Creative Conversation about Career Cycles

I had an amazing Creative Conversation with Janet Lee Carey about Career Cycles this week, where we talked about many of the things we often hesitate to discuss as writers:

At some point, it also hit me that there were no guarantees as a writer and that success wasn’t as simple as just being intense enough or doing any other one right thing. Anything I wrote could ultimately sell or not sell, find its audience or not find it. I had less control than I’d thought—and that was oddly freeing. If there were no guarantees anyway, I realized I might as well just write what I loved.

And:

Support, just knowing we’re not alone with the ups and downs, that we’re not the only ones to invent and reinvent ourselves, is huge. We’re so afraid of admitting to struggles, of being seen as less than perfect. Again, it’s like if others detect weakness, they’ll realize we don’t belong, and somehow magically kick us out of this writing world. But no one can make us stop writing, and no one person controls the whole writing-verse anyway. It doesn’t work that way.

There’s a lot more–check out the conversation here! (And, along the way, enter to win a copy of the Bones of Faerie trilogy.)


Want to talk about writing in person? I’ll be at the Pima County Public Library’s Megamania event Saturday, July 9.

Kidlit for Kidlits panel
With Aprilynne Pike, Adam Rex, and Janni Lee Simner

When: Saturday, July 9, 3:45-4:45 p.m.
Where: Pima Community College Downtown Campus,
1255 North Stone Avenue
Tucson, Arizona

Megamania is essentially a mini-comicon run by the library. The full event runs from 1-6 p.m. and is completely free

You don’t have to

You don’t have to write fast
You don’t have to write slow
You don’t have to go in with a plan
You don’t have to outline
You don’t have to wait
     for the story to say where it wants to go

You don’t have to write what they tell you to write
You don’t have to learn all the rules
You don’t have to be commercial
You don’t have to be literary
You don’t have to get five star reviews

You don’t need a platform
You don’t need a brand
You don’t need a social media presence
You don’t need to be silent
     or keep your opinions to yourself

You don’t have to be like everyone else
You don’t have to be like that bestselling, award-winning author you admire
You don’t have to write short
You don’t have to write long
You don’t have to write blog posts
     that claim to claim to have all the answers

You don’t have to be perfect
You don’t have to do all the things
You don’t have to do any one thing

You just have to tell your stories
     your stories
     your stories
The ones no else can
The way no one else can
That’s all
That’s all
That’s all

Intensity, burnout, and regrouping

Jaye Wells and Tiffany Trent both have posts up this week about writers and burnout. (I totally agree with Jaye Wells on the importance of writers having hobbies, once writing ceases to be one. Writing professionally is one of the things that led me to become a serial hobbyist.)

This got me to thinking about one of the cycles I’ve noticed in writing careers, one that we don’t talk much about–the cycle of intensity and burnout.

I’ve come to believe, watching countless writers go through this–and having gone through it myself–that writers often spend the first three or four years of their careers talking about how important it is to be intense and productive, sharing strategies for getting more done and being more efficient, talking about how a professional writer has no choice but to write two, three, four books a year.

Somewhere in the middle of the first decade, though, many writers go quiet–until somewhere around years six to nine writers often admit they’ve been coping with burnout, possibly alongside other career challenges, and they share those struggles. I think it’s hugely useful to do so. It’s all that sharing through the years that’s made me realize how common this is.

The first few years of the first decade of a writing career are often about intensity. The last few years of that decade are often about dealing with burnout in various ways. In between, writers often struggle with either despair or denial, as they realize this writing career thing is a less simple (even less simple) than it first seemed.

Sometime after the first decade, a sort of settling in and settling down happens. An acceptance of both the ongoing cycles and the shifting ground of a writing career. A developing of personal coping strategies for doing this for the long haul.

Well, either that, or the writer stops writing. I don’t mean that lightly–moving on to do something else is a reasonable response to burnout, too.

But one way or another, by roughly the end of the first decade, something often has to give, and something often has to change. That early intensity often can’t be maintained forever, not without, at the very least, allowing for downtime, as well as allowing for the unpredictability of a writing career.

I’ve used the word often a lot, above. Careers vary so much that none of this is going to be true for everyone.

But if this isn’t the only possible cycle for a writing career to follow, it is a common one. And I think that’s worth talking about, so that those who do go through this cycle know they’re not alone with it.

Intensity, burnout, regrouping. Sometimes the cycle repeats after that. Sometimes the strategies developed keep it from repeating. That varies too.

Intensity, burnout, regrouping. If you’re somewhere in the middle of this cycle, you’re not alone. You’re just navigating a perfectly normal writing career.

Writer’s block: short answers and long ones

“What do you do about writers block?” It’s a question writers get asked often.

It’s also a subject on which writers are tempted to go the hard truths route on when they answer.

When I was asked this question, I used to say something like, “Well, I don’t really get writer’s block. I just keep writing.” Maybe I’d throw in some helpful words about how it’s okay to write a crappy rough draft, as if all that stood between a–any writer–and writing was the fear of producing some bad words that they’d need to figure out how to revise later. The truth was, in my earliest writing days, I didn’t believe in writers block, and I did believe in simple truths. Writers write, right?

As time went on, I began to allow as how I did at least know what burnout was–both as a writer and in other fields–and that maybe that was what writers really meant, when they talked about writers block.

I still think I was right that the phrase, “writer’s block,” might be problematic, if only because it carries a lot of almost-mystical weight among writers, and that naming the specific reasons for not writing–of which burnout is only one of many–can sometimes give being stuck a little less power. But beyond that, when asked what I do about writer’s block now, I no longer have a quick, simple answer. There are so many reasons writers stop writing, as many reasons as there are writers.

But if asked to break it down, and given the time for a long answer rather than a short one, now I’d say there are three main things I do when I get writer’s block–or whatever we want to call it–things that, like all writing advice, are right for me, but may or may not be right for anyone else.

1) Sometimes I need to push through.

Sometimes what feels like writer’s block really is just a case of the I-Don’t-Want-Tos or the I’m-Scared-Tos. And sometimes even something more complicated than a case of the I-Don’t-Want-Tos or I’m-Scared-Tos can be fought and pushed through. Sometimes, the advice my younger self gave still holds, and I just need to keep writing, keep my butt in my chair, and get those words on the page by brute force.

2) Sometimes I need to step back.

Sometimes when writing just isn’t happening, something in the story isn’t working, or I need to figure something out before I can move forward. When that’s true, going for a walk, going to a movie, even just taking a shower or grabbing lunch and giving myself some thinking time may be the break I need to figure out what that something is. Once I figure it out, often the words will start flowing again, no brute force required.

Sometimes taking a break just re-energizes me, too, even if it doesn’t lead to any profound story realizations, and that can help my words to flow more freely, too. Writers like to talk about how we can’t afford to take breaks, but sometimes, I think we can’t afford not to.

3) Sometimes I need to step away.

Sometimes there are real, legitimate stresses, positive and negative, that take away our focus or our writing time or our writing brain and leave us in a place where we can’t push through, for a short time or a long one, and a shower or a walk or all the writing pep talks in the world just aren’t going to change that. That’s when we need to forgive ourselves for not writing for a time, allow ourselves some grace, and stop beating ourselves up and making ourselves feel worse about something that just isn’t going to happen right now.

The truth is that I remain, really, really bad at this. And to be fair, I don’t think I’ve ever been wrong to try responses 1 and 2 first–more often than not, they do work. But not always, and that’s okay.

Or maybe it’s not okay. It’s terribly hard, actually, especially when one is also trying to make a living, especially when writing is part of one’s identity and one’s way of being and expressing and existing in the world. I don’t have easy answers to what to do about any of that. (Or even, as Terri Windling says, any difficult ones.) But it’s going to happen to many of us, maybe most of us, at one point or another, if we keep at this writing thing long enough.

Most of us will also, at one point or another, find our way back, though we may stop believing that and it may take longer than we expect. I now believe that if we can learn to treat ourselves with compassion during these times, rather than with anger and self-hate, if we can find a way to be gentle with ourselves, this can actually help us through and provide comfort–something that’s especially important at times when writing isn’t there to do these things for us.

Writing, writing, writing

That lovely moment in the story when a phone rings, and you let your character answer it so that both of you can find out who’s on the other end.

Really, knowing where the story is going before you get there is overrated.1

Meanwhile:

Dear Characters,

I’m sorry, but you cannot organize yourselves into one Leader and Four Lancers.2

It just … doesn’t work that way.

Me

ETA:

Dear Group Leader,

I know, I know. You have to deal with this lot and you don’t even get the benefit of being the protagonist for your trouble.

Would it help if I gave you some angsty back story to make up for it?

Me

1Necessary disclaimer: For my writing process.

2If a Five-Man Band has one Leader and Four Lancers, does the Leader become the actual Lancer?

What’s in a critique? Pushing vs. support, confidence vs. criticism

While working on Finding Your Sense of Place I wrote about my first critique group, the Alternate Historians, who pushed me to first understand the importance of emotion and description in my own stories. They pushed me understand a lot of things, and they were the first people to consistently show me what was wrong with my writing and how I could improve it, instead of just telling me how much they liked my stuff, the way my family and friends and teachers mostly had until then.

I was so grateful for finally getting that deeper feedback that for a time, I thought every writer was looking for exactly what I was—someone to tell them what wasn’t working and how to improve. So when shortly after joining the Alternate Historians a friend asked me to read her poems, I dug right in. I was proud of the detailed critique I was able to give her.

My friend, however, was appalled. “I just wanted to know what you thought,” she informed me icily.

Hadn’t I told her what I thought? When it became clear my friend had only expected positive comments, I dismissed her in my mind as someone who wasn’t a serious writer and didn’t want real feedback the way serious writers did. After that, when others asked me to look at their work, I was more careful, and asked them what kind of feedback they were looking for—but truthfully, I was doing that as much to protect myself as them. I didn’t want to waste my time giving what I thought of as “real” critiques to those who wouldn’t appreciate them.

I was a new writer. New writers can be harsh, as we take our first stumbling steps toward making our writing a deep and serious part of our lives. We can be judgmental, and we have a bad habit of trying to turn our new-found personal truths into universal truths.

I don’t know when I first began to understand things were more complicated than that, but now I know that they are, in so many ways.

For one thing, there are many ways to be a writer, and writing for publication is only one of them. There are things I’ve done as hobbies that others do professionally: bookbinding, working with rescued wildlife, running, countless other things through the years. If writing is someone else’s hobby—if they just want to have fun with it, and share for the joy of sharing, without don’t want to push their limits in the same ways I happen to want to push them, that’s fine, and more than fine.

And there are many ways to be a professional writer, too. Or, to put it another way, different professional writers need different things.

Years after I met my first critique group, in another critique group and another city I was delighted when a writer who’d mostly just filled her critiques of my work with smiley faces finally told me why a story of mine didn’t work for her. I’d had a nagging sense something was off about that story, and I was genuinely grateful for her comments. Yet when I told her so, she was baffled. “I don’t feel like I really gave you anything useful this time,” she said of the first critique in ages where I felt she finally had given me something that felt useful.

She told me that to her, a useful critique had at least as much positive feedback as criticism, at least as much focus on what was working as on what wasn’t. I was the one baffled this time, because while positive comments felt good to me and while I did want to know what was working so that I could keep doing it, some part of me was always waiting for that part of the critique to be through, so that I could get to the “real” feedback.

Some weeks or months later, this same writer commented more quietly that sometimes new writers just need for other writers to believe in them and tell them their work is worthwhile, because maybe they don’t have anyone else in their lives who believes their work matters. It took a while for that to sink in, just like it took a while for it to sink in that my friend probably wasn’t really talking about other writers, but about herself.

One of the things that sank in—one of the things I now understand—is that not every writer already has someone who believes in them. Those family and friends and teachers who told me my work was awesome without helping me to improve it gave me more than I knew. They gave me something I needed more deeply than I’d understood: the deep belief that my work was worthwhile and worth pursuing. That belief would later help me get up the courage to show my work to others, to ask for deeper feedback, to be able to listen to that feedback and make the most of it, and to send my work out into the world. I don’t know if I would have eventually found the belief and courage I needed on my own, through brute force, with time. I do know that I didn’t find it on my own, but with help and support. And I know that without that basic foundation—a foundation so basic I hadn’t even fully realized it was there—I could never have moved forward.

Thank you, supportive family and friends and teachers who I took for granted. Thank you so very much.

I still ask, now, when I’m giving a critique, what writers are looking for. But I no longer think there’s a right or wrong answer to that question. If I have a chance to tell someone else that their work is worthwhile, to play some part in building their foundation and confidence by pointing to the sparks that are worth pursuing—why wouldn’t I want to do that? Now, I see it as an honor.

Indeed, in the years since my harsh early writer days, I’ve handed manuscripts to others, from time to time, too, and told them truthfully, “I just want to know this doesn’t suck.” It’s easy to be full of confidence in the early years of a writing career, but through the years and decades after that, well, we all need a confidence boost, some years more than others. Long-term writing careers are complicated, after all.

There’s more than one way to be a “serious” writer, and serious writers—all writers—need many things to move forward. We need people who will push our work to the next level, yes, absolutely. But we also need people who believe in us, as we work to internalize that belief for ourselves, and as we work to hang on to it after that. If the push to improve is missing, our work may never sell. But if the belief that the work is worthwhile is missing, that work might never get written in the first place. We need both things, belief and challenges. It’s not an either/or and never was.

Writing isn’t that simple, after all. Few things are.