The First J.M. Phillippe

Earlier this month, Bethany Maines shared the question so many authors struggle with: “what other authors are you like?” As the Olympics finishes up this week, it’s pretty obvious that comparison is inevitable for anyone in the public eye — particularly women (as the journalists covering the Olympics seemed to only know how to talk about female athletes in relation to male athletes). This is why Simone Biles is my new favorite role model:

 

Because when it comes to describing my writing style, or even trying to find the right mixed-genre combo to describe my first novel, Perfect Likeness, I am often at a loss. “I write like me,” I want to tell people. Unfortunately I am not a household name yet and thus can’t compare myself to only myself. (I may need some writing equivalent of gold medals first.) I have to try to find someone that is writing like me, who people like, to compare myself to. Preferably a best selling author so that people think “oh yeah, I love that person!” and then, you know, buy and read my book.

We can’t all be Simone Biles. Or J.K. Rowling. Or Stephen King. Or “put your Big Name Author here”. In fact, most authors I know in real life are pretty happy to be in the competition at all. We’re not looking to medal — we’re just hoping to get one or two (hundred, if possible) devoted fans.

The other big issue with “who are you like?” is that it taps into one of my biggest insecurities as a writer: that I don’t have a unique voice (or a unique story). Look, at this point, three out of five people I talk about my plots with pipe up with something along the lines of “it’s just like that other book/that movie/that video game/that song/that esoteric piece of art I did my PhD thesis on.” (Okay, maybe not that last one, but wouldn’t that be cool!?!) The “It’s All Been Done” record (go ahead and cue the Barenaked Ladies song) playing in my head is responsible for at least 60 percent of all my anxiety-filled blank-page moments.

The LAST thing I want is to write something just like any other book, or just like any author (yes, even the best selling ones). I have fought long and hard with myself to come up with something that didn’t sound to me just like everything else I’ve read. In fact, the biggest reason I write is because I don’t feel like I have read anyone else quite like me.

Which sounds great — all the way up until you have to market your book and someone asks you “what else is this book like/what other author are you like?” Because unlike gold medalists, there are A LOT of different authors and books, and people want some sort of sense of what they are going to get themselves into before committing 300 plus pages to a story.

What this means is that the writer part of myself is often at odds with the marketing part of myself. The writer part of myself wants to jump genres and experiment with writing style and format. The marketing part of myself wants to create a brand that people will recognize so that they can say, “oh, that’s a J.M. Phillippe kind of book.” The marketing part of myself knows that it takes more than a single event to make a gold medalist; there are years of dedicated practice behind that moment. There are hours and hours (and yes, even years) of constantly working at it for most writers to become Big Name Writers. And an essential part of that work — however much we may hate it — is creating a Big Name Brand.

I don’t have a good answer for this constant push and pull between these two sides of myself (but I do have a great recommendation for a comic by Nick Seluk called The Awkward Yeti, featuring Heart and Brain, which basically sums up my eternal struggles against myself perfectly):

 I think the struggle is going to be a constant one. And nothing brings it to light more quickly than someone asking me what other kind of writer I am like. I always have to fight the urge to say “I’m the first J.M. Phillippe.”

But maybe someday, I will be the author that others compare themselves to.

This blog post is from The Stiletto Gang blog, posted on 8/16/16.

The Perfect Soundtrack

Living in New York City, headphones are a necessity. They not only help you pass the time on long commutes, providing your own soundtrack protects you from the more…natural soundtrack of life in the city. I like an up beat while walking to work, something that quickens my pace to keep time to it. Mellow music makes a bus ride home nice and reflective.

Progress notes, the bane of every social worker’s existence, are made tolerable by a lovely oldies playlist I can sing along to. Even housecleaning, a chore I have loathed since childhood, can be gotten through best with a good music mix.

And there is not a single novel, story, or even blog post I haven’t gotten through without a playlist. In fact, my first novel, Perfect Likeness, pulled heavily from the music I was listening to as I wrote it. Sometimes, finding the perfect song can make or break the chapter I am working on. If I want to write something fast-paced and action filled, heavy bass and little words helps me find the right flow to move the scene along. Songs that make me sad help me get in the right head space for those moments in a story where I need to go deep.

Music is the only actual cure I know for writer’s block (besides not leaving the blank page until there is something, however bad you may think it is, on it). I have been known to put down a song lyric as a starting point, a way to get the creative juices flowing. In fact, some stories owe their existence to a lyric I couldn’t get out of my head.

I used to collect soundtracks, back when people would still buy CDs. I loved them because they were carefully curated playlists that helped move a greater story along. Some of my favorite movies are also my favorite soundtracks: Dirty Dancing, O Brother Where Art Thou, Singles, Forest Gump — just to name a few. Without their soundtracks, those movies wouldn’t even exist, and certainly not stand out in our minds the way they do.

Books don’t come with their own soundtracks, though I often think they should (if the copyright issues could be worked out). If you had to pick songs to go with the book you are currently writing or reading, what would they be?

*Originally published on The Stiletto Gang blog on July 19th, 2016.

The Vortex of Public Opinion

I have this phrase stuck in my head: “thrust into the vortex of public opinion.” It is a misquote from a long-forgotten class I took while studying journalism. I know it’s a misquote because thanks to that degree (and everything I learned about citing sources), I knew I couldn’t just repeat that phrase and not look it up. Thus, I slid down the Wikipedia rabbit hole on the definitions of libel and defamation, and more specifically, what makes someone a “public figure.” I won’t bore you with the court cases —Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. (1974); Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts (1967); Associated Press v. Walker (1967), and Hustler Magazine v. Falwell (1988) — or the actual quote (I was pretty darn close for a 15 plus year memory), but why I keep thinking about it: in the modern era of social media, is it time to update the definition? Are we not all, to our friends/fans lists in the hundreds (if not thousands, if your social media game is really on), “thrusting ourselves into the vortex of public opinion”?

Because as various news stories break, everyone seems to jump in to say…something. Sometimes what we say is very personal, and very connected to the big stories trending on Facebook and Twitter. And sometimes we don’t know what to say — so we say that we don’t know what to say. Sometimes we push forward a quote or meme and let that speak for us. But it seems that once we’ve entered these semi-public (or fully public, depending on your privacy settings) spaces, the one thing we can’t do is not say anything at all. Not just writers or journalists or other actual public figures — most everyone seems to feel this need to weigh in, one way or another.

And yet, weighing in is fraught with its own peril, thanks to comment sections and reposts. Many celebrities have learned this the hard way, and none too few private citizens as well, as they have actually been fired over things they have posted. Other people have found friendships ruined over social media posts (with online unfriending translating to real world unfriending), and still others have found themselves living the reality of the quote:

With all of that in mind, I often find myself hesitating before also entering the vortex of public opinion. I have become increasingly aware over the years that we are all on the cusp of being actual public figures — and as a published author, I likely have already, legally speaking, crossed that line. What we say has real world consequences, and the more we enter the public space, the less protection we have thanks to laws designed to preserve freedom of speech.

Even more than the legal ramifications, I worry about becoming a target. Online harassment and cyber-bullying are very real, and if someone garners the attention of certain groups, they may face extreme levels of it, including doxing (having your personal information such as phone numbers and addresses posted online), and even swatting (sending police or other officials to someone’s home through anonymous tips about bomb or other threats).

More, there is that thing that happens where our online interactions with people often out-number our in-person interactions with people, and what you post is also what people assume you are. I often find myself trying to view my various online spaces through the eyes of an outsider and try to figure out who they might think I am. From a marketing standpoint, I want to make sure that my public persona is “on brand.” From a safety standpoint, I want to make sure I am not opening myself up to the vortex, to that crazy unknown where one post or share could send me whirling in a direction I could never have imagined going in. I am responsible for my words, sure, but while I can own my intentions, I have no idea exactly how what I write may impact my readers. More often than not, I find myself not posting anything at all.

But the thing is, a huge part of selling a book is about selling yourself as an author, and not posting doesn’t actually help me. I should post more — I know that. But it’s a scary vortex out there, and I find myself teetering on the edge, hand hovering over my mouse, taking a moment before I hit “post.” Because the Internet never forgets.

Originally posted on The Stiletto Gang blog on June 20, 2016. 

Fit to Write

In 1988, a group of advertising execs created possibly the greatest, most influential fitness campaign slogan ever:

An entire generation, MY generation, has been living by these words of wisdom ever since. Or, at least aspiring to. Want to get good grades in school? Just do it. Want to learn to play guitar? Just do it. Want to see if you can eat an entire bag of cookies in one go? Just do it. Whatever it is you want to do, just go on out and do it.

Do an internet search on writing, and you’ll find much the same advice:

Writer’s write. The end. Want to be a writer? Write. Want to become good writer? Write more. Want to become the greatest writer that ever lived? Write, write more, and then write some more after that.

The doing makes you the thing. Runners run. Swimmers swim. Competitive food champions eat lots of food in really short amounts of time. Writers write.

If only it actually were that easy.

What the ad execs were getting at (in an attempt to sell shoes and other various fitness apparel) is that there really should be no excuses between you and the thing you are setting out to do. “Just do it” cuts through any possible block you could put up. “I don’t have time” becomes “make time.” “I don’t have the right equipment” becomes “get the right equipment.” “I don’t know what to say” becomes “say anything, keep saying anything until it becomes something, and then say more about that.”

There is — or there should be — nothing that keeps writers from writing. Like running, swimming, and sure, probably competitive eating, daily practice is the key. Just do the thing. Just write.

People obviously underestimate just how creative writers can be in coming up with excuses why they can’t, in fact, just write.

I have had some of the best naps of my life starting about 20 minutes after I sat down to write, because something about the process suddenly makes me super tired. The amount of resistance I have to the actual doing of writing is tremendous, so much so that it often takes a Herculean effort to even sit in front of my computer for ten minutes. It’s as if I am a beginner runner trying to convince myself I can make it through this one lap, or this next minute, without stopping (or actually dying from an acute inability to breathe). In fact, I have gotten in better running shape with more ease than I have gotten through certain sections of a book — and I am not in any way, shape, or form, someone who has ever actually enjoyed running; running, like writing, is something I have only ever enjoyed have had done.

I have never been a particularly disciplined writer, relying on the sheer terror that a looming deadline evokes in me to get me through that giant cloud of resistance so that I can actually write. I don’t have great writing discipline, or, really, any writing discipline, and it frankly shocks me every time I actually finish any piece of writing. It’s almost as though I finally force myself into a fugue state, after which I have something I can maybe sort of push and prod into something else that I feel mostly okay having other people read. At some point, despite all my best efforts not to, I finally do in fact, just do it. I write.

This is less than ideal. I would love a daily writing practice. I would love to get to the point where I can sit down in front of my computer and get to work without a certain tightening of my chest, a sudden thirst or hunger, or a desperate need to just rest my eyes, just for a few minutes, and then I’ll totally knock out some pages. It’s not like I don’t know what I have to do. Nike has been telling me what to do for the past almost 30 years. Just do it. Just. Do. It.

And I’m totally going to.

Starting tomorrow.

 

Originally posted on The Stiletto Gang blog on May 17, 2016. 

Winging It

Earlier this month, fellow Stiletto Gang author Bethany Maines posted a great blog about how she organizes her novels using spreadsheets and graphs — all online! I was super impressed. And then intimidated. Because my organization of a novel looks a lot more like this:

IMG_8743I do start out trying to be super organized. I spend a lot of time procrastinating…er…pre-writing by creating elaborate systems and files that some part of me knows I will never maintain. I understand that that the more up-front work I do, the less back-end work I’ll have to do. And yet, inevitably, at some point during a writing project I find myself digging through various notebooks and poorly named Word files, trying to find that one piece of information I need to complete whatever section I’m working on. I have to scan first drafts specifically for continuity errors (like the spelling of a name), and if it wasn’t for eagle-eyed readers and editors, I’d miss small changes I made in even basic descriptions (did that room have a brown leather chair or a burgundy leather chair?). I don’t even remember to put all my notes about the same story in the same notebook.

vader organization Of course, come revision time, I then I have to backtrack and do all the work that I maybe shoulda coulda woulda done in the pre-writing process. I create a reverse outline of my chapters and sections. I make a style sheet and finally decide on a single spelling of a name (the search and replace feature in Word is very much my friend). Changes are always intentionally planned. I invest heavily in the revision process, and the story can change dramatically from draft to draft.I also only ever make it half-way through a novel outline before the drafting process takes over, and characters and plots move in totally different directions. It’s a little bit because I find outlines kind of boring, and a little bit more that if I get too detailed and figure out how it will all end, I lose interest. Generally, I never start with more than a vague sense of where I want to end up, and I find drafting it out so much more satisfying. And yet I know that an outline would probably make the entire process a lot less messy — and faster — if maybe not as spontaneous.

In many ways, starting off by winging it and then going back and organizing what I’ve written lets me discover the story in two different ways — as I write it, and after I go back and read what I’ve written. That process of discovery keeps me interested in the story, even if it is very labor intensive.

Still, I can’t help but look at the ways other writers organize themselves and wistfully daydream about my own set of spread sheets and graphs. Sometimes though, I’d settle for remembering exactly where I put that really great breakdown of the third act I thought of while on the bus two months ago. All I have to do is figure out what notebook I had with me that day…

all the things

 

Originally posted on The Stiletto Gang blog on April 19, 2016. 

Art and the Political

There is some pretty good advice that floats around the Internet that says that fiction writers should refrain from engaging in political debates, and certainly refrain from posting blogs about their own political beliefs. The idea is that writers should strive to remain neutral so as not to take away from the fictional worlds they create (and also not to deter readers who might not agree with them from buying their books). And yet, there is an equal idea that art is inherently political, that our own politics and beliefs are not only reflected in the art we create, but should be, because we owe it to readers to speak our own truths.

In the United States, it is an election year. Politics are everywhere these days — in the news, on social media, at holiday dinners with family members you are not actually convinced you are related to, and in random conversations between eclectically dressed strangers at the store. Everyone has an opinion. Actually, they have lots of opinions, and links, and memes, and sound bites, and graphs, and polls, and when will this election be over already?

The thing is, as a writer, I also have opinions. Lots of opinions, actually. Tons and tons of opinions I would like to share with people in lovely (and hopefully well written) paragraphs and blogs.
I am trying to resist the urge. For one thing, engaging in political conversations on the Internet has never actually led anyone I have argued with to actually agree with me. Humans are hard wired to actually actively ignore information that doesn’t match what they already think thanks to confirmation bias:
And while there is also a valid argument in the fact that not only is arguing on the Internet a waste of time but is also yet another way of avoiding the kind of writing I should be doing, I do think there is some value in engaging in online discussions to some degree. But online discussions have a way of devolving into drawn out battles where each side is more determined to win than to actually consider another opinion.
Over the past few days, I have been finding myself posting more and more political things and engaging more and more with other people about the things they have been posting. All it ever really gets me is a rise in my blood pressure and an uneasy feeling that Somebody is wrong  (and the even more unsettling feeling that that Somebody could very well be me). There is also this feeling that maybe I am putting too much of my political self out there, that this goes against what I should be doing to brand myself as a mostly-likeable-and-non-controversial author. Is that a standard I should even be striving for? How much politics is too much?
And in the end, if art really is political, should I be saving my political views for my fiction (however subtly or overtly they come across)?
What do other’s think? How do you handle art and politics?
Originally posted on The Stiletto Gang blog on March 15, 2016. 

A Villain’s Voice

For my inaugural blog on The Stiletto Gang, I wanted to make a good first impression. And then I found out on the day I was going to post my first ever Stiletto blog that I had read the instructions wrong (mixing up AM and PM in the time I was supposed to post) and that I had already messed things up.

So much for good impressions.
I’m going to go ahead and blame this on the fact that lately I have been writing a lot of villains.
 In fact, I have been writing them in first person, which means I have been spending a lot of time trying to sound, well, horrible. And it has been surprisingly easy.

See, here’s the thing —  your classic villain has really simple wants and desires. There really isn’t too much to complicate wanting to take over the world, or on a smaller scale, take all the power. They have a very clear idea of where they are in the universe — they are the ones who get what they want (or should, and will go to any lengths to do so). Heroes often have to be coaxed into action through some sort of inciting incident, but a villain is very self motivated.

Your typical bad guy has it all planned out and knows exactly what they want to do next. In fact, taking advice from a writing teacher from undergrad, I often think of stories from the villain’s perspective first, since they usually have the more elaborate plans than the heroes do. After all, they are the ones that take the actions that the heroes have to respond to.

 

Finally, villains get to be, well, funny. And mean. This is where sometimes I feel like maybe I am a horrible person, because getting into the head space of a terrible person and letting all that pent up anger and frustration out just feels so…good.
There is a reason why many actors say that playing bad guys is more fun. It’s cathartic to get in touch with your own dark side. The more evil the villain, the easier it is to slide into that space for me, to contemplate a world where my character is at the center of it and doesn’t have to think about anyone else. There is no grey area, only clear black and white, a necessary oversimplification that lets my character feel free to to the horrible things he or she does. I believe it was Jeremy Irons who said that the trick to playing bad guys is that they never actually think of themselves as bad — they are always the heroes in their own stories. They are just heroes with most, if not all, the moral ambiguity stripped away.
As much fun as it can be to slip inside the head of a true bad guy, the best part about writing villains is that eventually I get to make sure they get what they deserve. Maybe that is where the true catharsis comes in, finding a way to create some small measure of justice in a fictional world, when so often it seems to be lacking in the real world. So, here’s to all the great villains: may they get what they have coming to them.
Originally posted on The Stiletto Gang blog on February 16, 2016. 

Work-Life Balance

Dear Readers,

When I first started this particular version of my blog, I had such high hopes of making and keeping to a regular posting schedule. The more time that passed from my last blog post, the more guilt I felt, and the harder it was to come up with a topic to write about. Every sentence I typed felt like it sucked, and I developed a keen sense of self-consciousness that no one wanted to hear anything that I had to say anyway.

I work in a very demanding profession, and the past several months have been brutal for me. I have some new very complicated cases that are stretching my capabilities to their breaking points. I am behind on paperwork, which while being a constant, makes me feel like any time spent writing should be spent writing progress notes. I am feeling very burned out, in general.

During the past several months I also had to go through and edit my book after it came back from the editor, and while I started the process feeling optimistic and excited, I quickly found myself drowning in doubt in that area as well. What had I written? Why would I think anyone would want to read it?

It is no secret to anyone who knows me that I suffer from depression, and that my symptoms are easily triggered whenever I start to feel overwhelmed, when I feel things starting to slip away from me. In the last months, I took on a second job, and a time-consuming volunteer opportunity — along with the challenging cases and the book edits — and it was way more than I could chew. I became very symptomatic, which meant I spent more energy avoiding things than doing things.

So how do you come back from that and be like, hi! I’m blogging again! Hope you keep reading! Do you acknowledge the lapse or ignore it and hope everyone else does too? Do you talk about your depression? Do you talk about how being a part-time writer with a full-time job is super challenging? I somehow doubt that’s the way to connect with fans and sell books. And yet…

Hi! I’m blogging again! I am going to a cider festival this weekend, of which I will be writing a review. I want to talk about the exciting things other authors in the Blue Zephyr Press group are doing. I want to say that my book cover is almost done and I can’t wait to share it with everyone once the final touches are done. I want to talk about other cool book-related things and life related things. And I will!

But first I wanted to write this: writing of any kind is a practice in vulnerability. I have spent enough time in my past life as a marketing person and public relations executive to know that a public image is something that should be carefully cultivated and maintained. There isn’t a lot of room in that cultivation for genuine vulnerability. But I think it is my fear of being vulnerable in this space that is holding me back from the very thing I want to do as a writer — connect with readers. So in the name of vulnerability and connection, I can’t just start this blog up again without any explanation of why it has been months since my last post.

And the explanation is this: a work-life (or sometimes, work and other-more-creative-work) balance is very hard to maintain. I am working on doing a better job with that balance, and I hope you follow along my journey as I do.

Till next week!

–Jennae

 

 

Why I’m Not Saying Goodbye To All That

It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends. I can remember now, with a clarity that makes the nerves in the back of my neck constrict, when New York began for me, but I cannot lay my  finger upon the moment it ended, can never cut through the ambiguities and second starts and broken resolves to the exact place on the page where the heroine is no longer as optimistic as she once was. – Joan Didion, Goodbye To All That

The first time I came to New York, it was with a friend who was getting her book published. She came out to the city to meet with “the book people”, as she collectively called them, in person. Her agent took us out to a fancy lunch (my going on the lunch was something my friend finagled for me) and while she went and had an official meeting even she couldn’t get me into, I took myself to see the Chelsea Hotel. Awed and humbled by the history, the symbolism, the raw and dark artistic hope, I daydreamed about a time when I would have my own “book people” and my own romantic return to New York as a published author.

When I moved to New York 4 years later, it was not as a writer or an author, but as a student embarking on a career that seemed like it would take me far away from that daydream. Still, I couldn’t escape the feeling of awe and wonder that I would have the privilege of living in one of the greatest cities in the world.

I was living in Los Angeles, a city I was born in and in which I had spent many formative years. LA has its own romantic reputation as a city where dreams come true and stars are born. In fact, the two cities are often compared and contrasted for just that reason — these are cities full of those in the hungry professions, the artists and actors and musicians and writers starving (in more ways than one) to make it. Coming from one city full of wonders and moving to another, you might think I would be immune to the thrill of walking down Broadway, or staring up at the Empire State Building. Didn’t I have Hollywood Boulevard and the Griffith Observatory? Hadn’t I regularly gazed up at the Hollywood sign, enjoyed the sights and sounds of Olvera Street, toured Hollyhock House? But it was the city I knew, and I had grown immune to its charms, while New York’s were still waiting to be discovered. And I wanted to discover them all.

Then this winter, two of my dearest New York friends made a plan to move to Los Angeles. Suddenly all I heard around me were stories of people leaving the Big Apple, people fed up with the high rents, the never-ending winters, the MTA fare hikes, and the general grittiness. Joan Didion’s essay came up again and again, naturally, as she wrote so honestly about her own love affair with New York, and her eventual realization it was time to leave. Transplants to the city, she wrote, never truly felt they belonged: everyone who came to New York from the West and the South always feel like they are living on borrowed time, waiting for the right moment to go home.

Every year since moving here I have asked myself if this is perhaps my last year. My last winter, my last Christmas, my last Cherry Blossom Festival at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, my last exhibit at the Guggenheim, my last debate about whether or not it would be worth it to line up for free Shakespeare in the Park (which I still have never quite been able to make myself do). Once I have gotten past the feeling that I just can’t take one more snowfall or deal with one more fellow train passenger who believes they are the only person who deserves space, I find that little voice inside myself that says “not yet.”

Here is where I no longer connect to Didion’s essay: I didn’t spend my 20s in New York. I didn’t come to be an artist or spend time with them. I bought furniture, put up shelves, settled in. Work shapes my days and weeks and leaves little room for parties you stay too long at, or afternoons spent drinking until you feel better. At some point during the last five years, I stopped thinking of myself as a tourist, and when I go visit other spaces, I feel this longing for the conversational comfort of my tree-lined Brooklyn street.

And somehow, in the corners of my routines, I found space for writing again: before-work writing, lunch-break writing, afternoons in a pub writing, staying up too late writing, writing grounded in effort and escape, persistence and pleasure, brilliance and balance. I traded daydream for action, naive optimism for optimism subsumed in a work ethic that fills the trains and buses I take every day and moves throngs in that mad rush that amazes tourists and baffles anyone longing for a quieter life. I like my life noisy. I like it just slightly rushed — it makes me appreciate those moments of quiet stillness in a way I never could before.

For now, I am staying in New York (not that the city cares much, one way or another), and listening to the voice that says “not yet.” I’m investing in a new pair of snow boots, and learning to accept high rent for small spaces. I still feel privileged to live here. I know next year I will again talk to myself about how long, really, I have left in the city. But I also wonder if there might be a point when the conversation will change from “is it time to leave New York and go back home?” to “is it time to admit you are home?”

Is the narrative of New York that people always leave it? Or is there a counter narrative, an anti-Didion essay that declares not that New York fails to deliver on the promises of “an infinitely romantic notion”, but that it refuses to be an object of “the shining and perishable dream itself” and instead must always assert its own imperfections blatantly and honestly and dare you to love it anyway. Or not. I’m not sure the city requires love; it is a city known best for its indifference and read as cold, but who I always think of as a very old and wise teacher sitting in the back of the room and looking on as you learn your lessons. Maybe people leave New York when they have learned everything the city is able to teach them. Maybe people leave New York because they are ready for new lessons, lessons taught in LA’s sunshine, Austin’s creativity, or Seattle’s pragmatism.

Me — I still have a lot to learn about New York, and from it. But I will miss my friends when they move to the Coast.