I Am Not Tolkien

Anyone who knows me can tell you how Tolkien obsessed I am. I know all the weird little details. I get annoyed by inaccurate Tolkien memes. I have read the books and seen the movies multiple times.

However, when it comes to writing, I avoid Tolkien like the plague.

Lemme explain.

Tolkien was a linguist and a historian. He was an academic. This is why he was able to create his own languages, his own detailed world history, even his own religious mythos. He was already an expert in these areas.

I’ve seen a lot of memes that poke fun at Tolkien for starting his story by creating an entire language for his elves. (By the way, there are fifteen elven languages and dialects. The language of the dwarves was based on Old Norse and for men I think it was Old English, so not entirely made up, but still requiring years of previous study.)

So now fantasy writers feel like they have to do all that junk and that’s why we end up with fantasy stories that are all based in a made-up-but-medieval setting with fake words and usually at least one of the fantasy races (i.e. elves, dwarves, hobbits, etc.).

It actually really irritates me when people do this. Lemme tell y’all a secret… you do NOT have to create a new language in order to write a believable fantasy setting. In fact, you probably shouldn’t do that unless you, like Tolkien, are a linguist and have intensely studied how languages work. There are many ways of indicating language without actually writing the language. (Names of countries and such like are obviously the only exception.)

I would continue to argue against elaborate languages by saying that it pulls readers out of the story and mostly annoys them. Think about it. What do you, as a reader, do when you come across a word or name that you can’t pronounce? You skip it. You don’t try to sound it out in your head. You just skip right over it.

History is a little different in that I don’t believe you need to be a historian to create a backstory for your world. However, I do think that instead of actually trying to do this, people just go with the Tolkien Template. Medieval-era swords & sorcery, a past struggle against the Darkness, and general animosity between obvious races (i.e. elves & dwarves).

Anyway, my point here is that I found it very intriguing that I’m such a huge Tolkien fan, but when it comes to my writing, I tend to do nothing the way he did. There is no doubt that everything I’ve ever read, seen, or done subconsciously influences what I write. So Tolkien may be lurking in my writing without my knowledge. But I am not Tolkien. I do not try to write like him.

Which I suppose is not all that unusual, when I take a moment to think about it. The truth is that I am not any of the writers that I read and admire. When I sit down to that blank screen, all those writers and their works may be behind me. They may be the foundation from which I built my understanding of the craft. But in the end, the words that I put together to create stories are my own. When I write, I try to write like me.

What My Novel Is About

There is a question that I get asked every time someone is told that I’m writing a novel. It is always, “What’s your novel about?”

I used to have very strong feelings about this question. Basically, I hated it.

I have been working on a novel of some kind since I was fourteen. I’m going to be thirty-two in a couple weeks. For a large chunk of that time, I suffered from social phobia. It was a dark, horrible place. Talking to people at all was a struggle, let alone trying to answer that question of horror.

The reality is that novels are complex beasts and since I’m always in process and never finished, it’s actually really difficult for me to summarize what I’m working on.

This is probably different for every writer, but for me, it’s practically impossible to tell you what my novel is about. It’s not because I don’t want to share it with you. It’s because I don’t actually know.

The trick is usually trying to figure out if the person I’m talking to is someone I can trust with the information that I don’t know what my own novel is about.

When I was young and terrified, nobody could be trusted with that information. I wouldn’t willingly hand it out. So what did I do? I usually tried to get away with saying what genre I was writing. “Oh, it’s a fantasy novel.” If that didn’t work, I tried to summarize. And I failed. And then I felt like an idiot. And then I probably resolved never to talk to that person again out of shame.

So I think you can see why I hated this question back then.

Nowadays, I’m not as scared of people or what they think, so I find in most cases I can go ahead and tell them that I don’t know what my novel is about. It’s actually the perfect mechanism to change the subject from what my book is about to how I write. Since the next obvious question is something like, “How can you not know?” or “Are you some kind of idiot?” Then I can answer, no, not exactly, I’m just a discovery writer. I find my story as I go along. See? Now we’re talking about my process and I no longer have to attempt to summarize the slush that is currently my novel.

loooove talking about my writing process. I could talk about that mess all day long.

And since I no longer hate and fear the dreaded question, I can instead appreciate the person who asked for being interested in my writing at all.

I find in most cases, gratitude can change your outlook on anything. Something I used to hate is now something I can be grateful for. I know that people who ask aren’t trying to make me feel anxious or stupid. I know that they simply want to get to know me. So instead of telling them what my story is about, I tell them why I don’t know what it’s about.

So if you ever ask me what my novel is about, you can be sure that I won’t give you a direct answer. Even if I had some kind of summary to provide, it would be meaningless. If you asked me the same question a week later, the entire summary would be different. This is how I work. My creative process is a mess. It works, but that means my story is also a mess and thus summary is impossible.

In conclusion, I am grateful to anyone who expresses genuine interest in my writing, no matter what questions they ask. Just remember that I’m dodgy and don’t be offended if I don’t actually attempt to summarize my novel for you. I’m still happy you asked about it.

My Night in Ribbons

Tonight I learned much about the ways of typewriter ribbons.

You see, when I bought Webby, her ribbon was much used and I knew I needed to obtain a new one. I did a Google search and just like magic, Amazon was there – offering me an array of ancient typewriter ribbons. Twin spools, black and red ink, Brother XL-500 compatible….

But Webby is a little different.

The thing about Brother typewriters is this – they only made the “Webster” in 1965, according to The Typewriter Database. After that, it was all Webster XL-500, Webster XL-747, et. al. Webby doesn’t have an XL or any numbers. She’s just a Webster. The main difference that I can see is that most of the XL models have a tabulator. However, I have found most places say that the Webster is comparable to the XL-500, so the ribbons made for those typewriters should work in the Webster as well.

So I bought the one described above. When it came, I noticed it was very different from the spools already inside Webby. The spools I got were plastic while the ones Webby came with were metal. They also had completely different holes. I figured this was just because they didn’t make metal spools anymore and that the new fangled plastic ones would have been made to work in the old typewriters.

And mostly, they did. They fit on the spool holders, the ribbon fit in the ribbon vibrator, and they turned as I typed.

As I used it, though, I quickly realized that any capital letters were being cut off. The top half was just not there. And when I used the red ink and tried to type a capital letter, half the letter was red and half the letter was black.

I cannot begin to express to you how much Googling I did about Brother typewriters. I found the Database mentioned above, figured out my serial number and thus the year Webby was made, learned about how these typewriters were originally made in Japan, and that no famous writer on any list I found used one. (Apparently, the Underwood and the Smith-Corona were the typewriters of choice.)

I was completely unable to find anything about capital letters being cut off. There was all kinds of advice on how to set margins, how to clean old typewriters, how to do minor repairs on the carriage, and how to fix the alignment when your capital letters weren’t lining up with your lower case ones.

The only thing I found that was worth anything was a set of instructions on how to move ribbon from newer spools to older spools. I didn’t know at the time that this would help me. I thought I just had the wrong kind of ribbon.

So I went back to Amazon and found a ribbon by a different seller and ordered those. The dimensions listed in the description were a little different. I thought this was important because when I compared the metal spools to the plastic spools, they were 1/16th of an inch smaller. That doesn’t sound like much, but I thought it might be the problem.

The new ribbons were in the exact same spools as the original ribbon I had bought.

So I decided to pull the metal spools out of the drawer I had put them in (because you know I wasn’t going to throw them away) and put them back in. I wanted to be sure the capital letters worked when those original spools were being used. They did.

And then I remembered the instructions about moving new ribbon from new spools to old spools. I didn’t look them up again, I just went at it by myself.

And so ensued an hour or so of me making a mess unspooling and re-spooling ribbons. Let me show you!

messy

What a mess.

Here you can see the end result. Those are the metal spools with the new ribbon in place. My left hand is included so you can see how inky my fingertips were. My right hand looked exactly the same, so I took this picture with my nose. Because I didn’t want to get ink on my screen. Stop judging me. I can feel you doing it through time and space.

unspooled typewriter ribbon

Cleo almost stepped on it, too.

Here you can see one of the plastic spools and almost an entire ribbon unspooled. This is the old ribbon and I really didn’t feel like spooling it onto a spool just to throw it away, so I just pulled it all out instead.

the test page

This is where I tried out all my attempts at repairing the issue. You can see many failures.

Here you can see my test page. The problem is on the upper left corner, where I have the alphabet in all upper case. See how they’re cut off? The one a little lower down and still on the left, which is faint, is from the old ribbon. The one in the middle, which is dark, is when I finally fixed it. And of course some gloating in red ink nearby.

It turns out that ribbons are attached to spools using these tiny little arrow shaped spikes. Seriously, they’re pointy enough to pierce the fabric. They look like little spear heads or maybe those spikey things on top of iron fences you see at fancy houses sometimes.

All I had to do was unspool the ribbon from the new spools, pull the ends off the spikes, and re-spool them onto the old spools. I put the metal spools back in with the new ribbons on them and PRESTO. It worked! Except that now they weren’t turning.

I nearly had a conniption. If your spools aren’t turning, your ribbon never moves, and you end up just getting letters that are fainter and fainter until you’ve used up all the ink in that one spot. So basically it’s completely useless.

Fortunately, a little finagling with the ribbon holders revealed that all that junk is connected and I probably just jostled them out of place while I was taking spools on and off. I couldn’t believe the solution was so simple.

In conclusion, I now know that I will have to unspool and re-spool all my ribbons going forward. You might ask why I would go through such trouble when really you can read those cut-off capital letters just fine. If you do ask such a thing, then you are obviously missing the entire point of writing on a typewriter to begin with. You might as well ask me why I go through the trouble of writing on anything that isn’t a computer.

I have to say that it’s pretty satisfying to fix a problem like that. Now Webby just means even more to me because I understand how she works a little better. And while I might get another old typewriter someday (giving in to the Smith-Corona popularity), Webby is perfect. She is just what I needed in my life right now. We’re both a little quirky. (She’s also older than me by twenty-one years.)

The Ghost of Failures Yet To Come

What? A new post two days in a row? Yeah, don’t get used to it. This is only happening because I split the Dead Blog Post in half. You know the one.

So I’m working on a story I’m calling Novel Z.

Now before I start up another dialogue with my imaginary blog reader, I actually already talked about this briefly on my Facebook page. And I’m not here to blog about what I’m calling my novel or which story it really is or whatever. Suffice it to say that I’m working on something called Novel Z, okay? Good.

I’m really here to tell you about all of my failures that have yet to happen. You see, I recently had a sort of epiphany about myself. I came to the realization that I have never finished a novel (apart from the one I wrote when I was 14) because I always use getting stuck on the plot as an excuse to quit before anybody reads it.

It all began when I was getting frustrated with the plot of Novel Z before I even started writing anything. I felt like all my ideas were trash and nothing I came up with was any good, especially when it came down to the magic system I was trying to create. So I did a Google search along the lines of “how to write magic systems”. This brought me to Brandon Sanderson’s website, which outlines his three laws of magic systems. From there I somehow found a link to a set of Youtube videos – recordings of the lectures he gave for a fantasy writing class at BYU. Since I’m a fan of Mr. Sanderson’s work, I decided to listen to all of the lectures.

One of the things that really struck me was how he talked about both discovery writing and outlining. For those who might not be aware, I lean pretty heavily on the discovery writer side of things. Lately, I had decided that was why I never finished anything. So I have attempted to become an outliner. As I listened to the lectures, I started to question whether or not that was really my problem. Brandon Sanderson talked about both methods as though it was understood by all that either way works. He would explain how discovery writers might do things differently than outliners when it came down to certain aspects of novel writing, but he never said one way was better than the other. If that’s the case, then what’s my problem? I asked myself.

The truth hit me like a bolt of lightning last weekend while I was actually thinking about my story and how I write.

I use my tendency to discovery write as an excuse to quit.

I would always get stuck somewhere in the story because I hadn’t planned it out ahead of time. That always happens when you discovery write. But instead of working through it and figuring it out (which I could certainly do), I would just give up. Oh, I would say stuff about how I was working on it, but really it would just be sitting in an unopened file for months at a time. Then I’d eventually get antsy about not writing, but when I went back to it, none of it made sense. So I would start over completely.

Why would I do this to myself?

Easy. I do this to myself because I am scared shitless.

I have been so afraid of finishing a book, I’ve been subconsciously sabotaging myself.

I mean, think about it. What would happen if I actually finished a manuscript? My family & friends would want to read it. Then I would probably send it to agents, hoping someone will pick it up and try to sell it to a publisher.

What if my family & friends hate it? What if no agent thinks it’s worth anything? In other words, what if I fail completely at the one thing that I not only love but claim to be good at? The one thing that everybody knows is my thing, my passion?

I hear you thinking out there. You’re thinking, get over it, you big baby, everybody gets rejected. Just try again!

It isn’t that easy. Writing a novel is a lot of work. Work that I love, yes, but that’s an investment of not just time and energy, but bits of my soul, too. I put myself in my novels whether I mean to or not. To have someone reject a piece of your soul… it’s something I’m sure writers get used to (probably all artists do). But I haven’t been rejected yet, not counting the seven rejection letters I got for that novel I wrote when I was 14. (Most of them just said they don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts – I was attempting to skip the whole agent thing.)

And they say the first cut is the deepest.

And by “they” I mean Rod Stewart.

My point is that my own fear is what has been holding me back, not my process. Brandon Sanderson actually talks about this in the last lecture of the series. Every writer has that feeling that any moment someone is going to realize that they are a complete hack. Apparently, that feeling never goes away.

Okay, so now what? I know I’m a big scaredy-cat, my fear of everyone discovering how awful I am will never go away, and I still want to write novels that might maybe get published one day. What do I do about it?

I know from personal experience (unrelated to writing) that the only way to overcome a fear is to face it. In this case, I have to finish my book. I have to give myself a reality check when I inevitably get to that moment of crisis in my first draft. Then I have to get past it and actually finish it. If it gets rejected, I will try again. And I will be able to say, look, I wrote this thing and here’s what I learned from it.

That’s really the only option there is.

And anyway, once I become a super famous best selling author, that original rejected manuscript will be worth billions on eBay.

Typewriters & Things

So you may notice that I am using a new blogging platform. This is because the old one wouldn’t let me post blogs for about a century. I thought I fixed it today, so I wrote a big ole long post. And then it broke again. So I’ve given up on it and I’m starting over here, where hopefully everything will run smoothly. I GUESS WE’LL FIND OUT.

Fortunately, I thought to save that big ole post in a Google Doc before it was destroyed. Good job, past me! However, it was kind of long, so I’m going to start you all off with the first half of that blog today and then I’ll post the rest either later this evening or tomorrow or maybe next year if we’re going by my previous track record.

The first thing is that I finally bit the bullet and bought a typewriter off eBay. You see, for years I had my eye on several brightly colored hipsteresque typewriters that were being sold on Etsy, but because they were from Amsterdam, the shipping was horrendous. Plus the fact that they were charging nearly a hundred bucks for the typewriters themselves. Also, they were German style or something so they didn’t even have the right keys. Then I did the smart thing and actually Googled where to buy typewriters. While eBay runs the risk of getting you something that might not work so great, the options are far less expensive and usually closer to home (i.e. in the same country).

I looked at options for about two seconds before buying a 1965 Brother Webster.

 

webby

I call her Webby.

 

Of course, if you follow me on Instagram or Facebook, you’ve already seen this picture. I bought a replacement ribbon for her, installed it pretty easily, and then went to town as I’m sure you can tell from that paper full of words.

I think her light blue color is perfect – it’s just hipster enough. (You know… because I’m totally a hipster. Right? Aren’t I?)

As it turns out, Webby is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I can’t explain what it is about writing on this thing that I love so very much, but it fills me with endless joy. It’s so noisy and clunky and adorable and I basically get impatient waiting for the day to end so I can go home and write on it.

I also went to Office Max and bought a box of 1500 sheets of paper, so you know. Now I have no choice.

The second thing I talked about in the Blog Post That Never Was: Camp NaNoWriMo.

I hear you groaning. “Not that NaNo-what’s it again!”

Well unlike the November version of NaNoWriMo, Camp NaNoWriMo lets you choose your own goal. Instead of the set 50,000 words, for instance, I’ve signed myself up for 30 hours. This is good because it means I can work on the outline or the character backstory or the magic system of my story and it all counts toward the goal, even if there isn’t exactly a word count to go with it.

I would say I’m doing pretty good so far. I originally started with a goal of fifteen hours, but I got halfway there in the first week, so I doubled it. That’s a good sign, right?

Of course, I have a habit of losing momentum about halfway through the month and of the nine or ten years I’ve done NaNo, I think I’ve reached the goal maybe twice.

There aren’t any horrible consequences for failure, though, so I keep signing up. Nobody claimed I was sane.

In conclusion, you ended up getting a lot more information about these things since they were a much smaller part of the Post That Died. It’s just that the second part is kind of wordy, so I figured it would be better this way. Not to say that any of my blog posts aren’t wordy, but I’m a writer, so you know. Deal with it.