“Look What You Made Me Do”: Another Taylor Swift earworm

Following the “Bad Blood” attack on Katy Perry, and the self-parody of “Blank Space,” Taylor Swift has a new song inspired by her clickbait-headline-friendly behavior. Whether it’s another breakup or her inspiring and validating sexual assault testimony, we just can’t look away. Unsurprisingly, she couldn’t follow through with her earlier attitude toward her reputation and just “Shake it Off,” so now we have “Look What You Made Me Do,” and we love it anyway.

Right away, the song is intriguing with its dark and almost threatening list of boxes Swift resents being forced to fit. Figurative or literal, you can’t help raising your own hackles at the list of injustices and suddenly feeling the courage to bite the hands that have been beating you. Between bridges and choruses, the percussion behind the verses snaps like the individual threads in a rope. When that last thread goes, we should be in for a chorus that blows us away.

But the beat drops, and we land in what almost sounds like a Black Eyed Peas song. Swift sings, “Ooh, look what you made me do,” but it’s hard not to think of Fergie’s voice chanting “my humps” over and over. It’s a lackluster change of pace that feels spliced in from another song, but everything around it is still enthralling enough to keep us singing along.

Unfortunately, the spell of the song is broken by a few self-referencing lines. “I’m sorry, the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now. Why? Oh, because she’s dead.” At first, it feels like a badass anthem for anyone looking to cast off an old persona and be more of the person they feel they truly are. But once the lyrics sit in your mind for a while, it’s clear the song is the same old Taylor. And she knows it.

Just before that break in lyricism to deliver what reads like a passive-aggressive tweet, Swift sings, “I don’t trust nobody, and nobody trusts me.” Of course we don’t; Swift’s music has become more and more an outlet for indirect responses to the public. Some celebrities ignore the gossip while others release statements to set the record straight. Swift just chooses a new target for her side-eye shade and picks a beat to go with it.

It’s entertaining, but the novelty of the act is wearing off. As the lyrics say, “Honey, I rose up from the dead./ I do it all the time.” At this point, we know she’s only faking her Lazarus Effect party trick; for all the heat she gets, her career and reputation have never been close to dead. Not that it matters; the song is still going to be stuck in our heads until she releases the next one.

Writing that thing you HAVE to get published

Throughout undergrad, my professors talked about having a healthy level of arrogance about our writing. It’s right there between being confident and being an asshole.

Mostly I’ve just been trying to reach the confident point—where I can objectively look at something I wrote and say, “Yes, this is a good piece people may read.” Just after that threshold, there’s rumored to be this other mindset that actually helps you get published. They say your attitude changes there. “This piece isn’t just good,” you’ll say. “It’s so good that it has to be read!”

Sure, I’ve had that thought. It was back when I started writing, and no one read a word of it, and I was sure my novel ideas were going to blow so many freaking minds. Then someone did read my first novel, and it did not blow his mind. Really, the whole thing just blew.

I learned to check my ego and to lean a bit more toward being objective with my work. Internally, I’m sure I skewed toward being an asshole toward people who didn’t “get” my short stories. But I still walked into every critique hoping I’d walk out with some ways to improve. That’s the mentality I’ve been stuck in through the last couple years of revising my manuscript.

While I was stuck, I’ve been getting increasingly annoyed at myself for working on nothing else. Even my blog has suffered. I decided to change that, so I opened a new Word doc and started a new blog post. It covered how I’ve grown over the last few months, the turns of my career, and some other hopeful things. It was the blog post I wanted to write for months, but I couldn’t get it right. It was too accusatory, too vindictive, too self-pitying. I hated writing it all those times as much as anyone would have hated reading it, so I never saved the work.

When I tried again last week, it wasn’t nearly the struggle it was before. The story was ready to come out and play. We played on the page, and I found all the magical things it had lacked before: an intention, the proper distance from the experience, and excitement from me, the writer.

But not just excitement. As I looked the piece over and cleaned it up, I realized it was too good for a blog post. Oh, no. This piece needed to go to The Huffington Post. While I’m at it, I might as well shop it around to some other places. This piece isn’t just good, it needs to be read. And it’s just not going to get the audience it deserves here on my blog.

Had I been writing this experience a few months ago, the story probably would end with an explanation of why I chickened out and decided to revise the piece until eventually giving up on it. Today, the piece is under review with The Huffington Post. And it’s about to be under review with some other publications, too.

Honestly, I expected this golden place of confidence/arrogance to feel like an exclusive club I had earned my way into. In reality, it feels more like unloading the dishwasher. This piece is going to these publications because it just belongs there. The plates go in this cupboard because that’s just where they go.

Saying Goodbye: Words of Wisdom from Sarah Domet

Last night, I went to a conversation with authors Sarah Domet and Jonathan Rabb at The Book Lady Bookstore. The event promoted the paperback release of The Guineveres, Domet’s debut novel. For the umpteenth time, I crowded in with the rest of a gaggle of Savannah’s writing and reading community. Toward the end of the conversation, someone asked Domet how she felt about letting go of her first book while moving on to her second.

The Guineveres began in the form of her dissertation before years of work grew it into the acclaimed novel it is today. Domet said she felt very protective over her characters, and an almost maternal fear of sending them out into the world. “My pregnancy hormones might have had something to do with that,” she joked. The Guineveres was released In October 2016, two days before she gave birth.

“The hardest part,” she said, “is that I don’t get to be a part of their lives anymore.”

No character’s life is confined to the timeline of a story. They have memories of events before a novel begins, and—barring a tragic ending—they have a future that goes beyond the words “the end.” After spending years growing alongside your characters, it’s hard to stop writing about them. The draw of a spinoff or a sequel is strong. Even Domet wanted to keep going in the lives of the four Guineveres in her book.

For the last few weeks, a similar thought nagged at me. Despite the many ideas on my mental shelf of novels to write, The Thieves of Traska staked the biggest claim on my time. I revise, rewrite, reorganize. It even took over most of my artwork. Every line I share for the writing hashtag games on Twitter comes from Thieves. Lately I’ve been grumbling to myself: “Why don’t you work on something else for a change?”

Last year, I dove into the first draft of the sequel to Thieves. Okay, that’s not really something else. I made significant headway before going back to revise Thieves. Those revisions ultimately made the half-novel I had drafted moot. Any time I try to start it over, I worry it’s just a waste of time. I’m still revising Thieves. When it gets an agent, that will probably mean more revisions. And then there will be an editor and—oh, right—more revisions.

“Oh god, this will never end,” plays on repeat in my head.

“For Amanda – Best of luck with your book! Thanks for coming out tonight!”

A few months ago, I managed to get out two and a half chapters of a completely unrelated novel. I decided to give it some space when I caught myself doing an info dump in chapter three. Last week, I drafted the first chapter (again) for still another novel. That one excites me; it combines an old idea—the incomplete National Novel Writing Month 2012 project that inadvertently created Thieves—with a new one I came up with last year.

In spite of that, most of my time goes to Thieves. I keep thinking the next revision will be THE ONE. Then it’s ready to pitch to agents. Just as soon as I change this one thing. And this other thing. And, oh, a beta reader has more suggestions! Better make those changes, too.

When Domet signed my copy of her book, I asked her how she transitioned from the stage of making one more revision to actively seeking an agent.

“I think you get to a point of frustration,” she told me. “I just realized that nothing was going to come of it if I didn’t do something. You can’t get anything done if you just sit on your behind.”

3 Lessons Learned From Assignments I Hated

For some writers, we’re able to make some type of writing our day job. So long as this much writing doesn’t “kill your creativity,” as Kerri Majors says in This is Not A Writing Manual, it can be great. But no matter how great it is, you’ll probably get stuck with an assignment that makes you want to claw your eyes out. After years as a writing student, a blogger, a journalist, a public relations writer, and now a tourism marketing writer, I’ve begrudgingly had to acknowledge how some of these assignments I hated came in handy.

1. IMITATIONS OF STYLE

Lesson taught: senior year of high school, various fiction and creative nonfiction classes in college

“Imitations of Style” was a pain for everyone. You take the piece of writing you want to imitate, and you type out the whole thing verbatim. Many of my classmates copied and pasted from the internet to save themselves from a little tedium. After the whole thing is copied, you write your own imitation piece. Depending on the class, you either wrote an original piece in the other author’s style, or you rewrote the author’s piece in an alternative style.

From E.B. White’s Once More To The Lake, I wrote a memoir piece titled “Lost and Unlost.” From Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, I wrote the short story “A Rose of Success.” There are half a dozen more imitations on my computer. One of those pieces reached publication, but otherwise there were no benefits.

Lesson learned: working in public relations

In PR, my duties varied widely. When writing press releases, everything had to be in the company’s branded voice. For certain individuals, I had to draft their quotes for press releases, blog posts, and responses to emails. Every blog post had to have the brand’s voice, but different from the press releases.

There was no manual on how to do any of that, let alone what distinguishes each voice. I had an assignment and an immediate deadline. So I did the first thing that popped in my head: pull up old press releases/articles where person X is quoted/blog posts, and retype them. Doing this gave me a feel for the voices I needed to write in—cadence, sentence structure and length, type of vocabulary, and what sort of information they wanted to highlight. Once I picked it up and practiced, it got difficult to pick out which parts I wrote from the rest.

Always smiling, no matter what. Image via IMDB.

2. FRAME EVERYTHING TO SOUND POSITIVE

Lesson taught: working in public relations

This was always a pet peeve of mine. I would receive edits on blog posts that said to make everything sound more positive. Make it more peppy and upbeat. A coworker used to do this by adding puns and snappy final lines while I continued banging my head against a wall. Everything had to sound like the best thing since macaroni married cheese.

Lesson learned: working in tourism marketing

While writing a brief guide to beaches in the area, I had to include some of the most important rules visitors should know. Some beaches allow dogs or alcohol while others don’t. Several prohibit glass containers of any kind, and violators face huge fines. But one beach has more rules than the others. My first few drafts sounded like, “This beach does not allow fun of any sort between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., but it’s here if you’re into that sort of thing.”

It took some finesse, but I described the beach as the ideal location for people who just want to swim or relax in the sun without having to worry about getting hit by a frisbee. Thankfully, I managed to do so without a single pun.

3. TRANSCRIBE THE WHOLE INTERVIEW

Lesson taught: high school and college journalism

At my college journalism job, a writer desperately needed help editing her article. I asked for her interview notes and transcription and was shocked to see that she hadn’t taken any notes during the interview. Worse, though, was her transcription. Instead of typing out what her source had said, she made bullet points and summarized what she felt had been important. The worst was that she had made up the majority of quotes she’d used in her article.

With our deadline upon us—hers to finish writing the article, and mine to edit and post it online—there wasn’t much I could do besides take over. I put on her headphones and transcribed every word her source said. After pulling all the information the article needed and the best quotes, it took 20 minutes to complete the article. It has always been my method to write articles this way, but I do so because it works for me.

Lesson learned: working in tourism marketing

During my time in PR, sometimes there wasn’t time to record and transcribe a whole interview or presentation. I relied only on my notes. During an interview for one of my first articles, I got my source comfortable by asking him about the history of the building he owned. The first 45 minutes of our recorded interview was full of the building’s history, some personal anecdotes, and several first- and second-hand accounts of ghost sightings. This is Savannah, after all.

That put all the facts I needed for my article in the last 15 minutes of our conversation. It took me about four hours to transcribe the interview. Maybe I could have saved time by skipping past the ghost parts. Part of me wondered if there might be some place for those stories in my article. In the end, I transcribed them because I thought they were amazing. When I related some of the ghost stories to a coworker, she was ecstatic. Local ghost stories are perfect for our publications.

Well #?^%: That BEEP-ing Goodreads app

Incredible how it’s been almost a year since my last Well #?^% post. I gave up on numbering them after I realized I skipped a number here and there. But it’s nice to get back to some classic content and write a good old fashioned rant. This one is about my least favorite part about Goodreads‘ smartphone app.

Mostly, I use the app whenever I’m browsing a bookstore or the book section at Target. After reading the back and inside covers of books that catch my eye, the app is a convenient way to check reviews and what else the author has done. Maybe the best part is that it helps keep me from impulse-buying every book that dazzles me. And if Goodreads hasn’t talked me out of that dazzling book, I use the app’s handy barcode-scanning feature.

As much as I love that tool, it is also the reason for this post. Even if my phone is on vibrate, the app makes an obnoxiously loud BEEP every time I scan a barcode. If I was the kind of person who maybe only scanned one book, maybe I would hate that noise a little less. I could scan my book, then run away before anyone could catch on that I was the cause of that awful BEEP.

Roadrunner, looney tunes, beep beep
My visits to the bookstore sound very much like the Roadrunner. Image source: wikia.

At minimum, I scan two books. I want to keep track of everything that I want to read. Books I saw promoted on Twitter three weeks ago that now sit on a bookshelf in front of me. BEEP. Books by authors I love. BEEP. Books with crazy awesome cover art that I will read regardless of the premise. BEEP.

I become the weird person pulling book after book off the shelves, holding it up to my phone, and making that ungodly noise. It’s not so bad that I stop using that feature on Goodreads. I could simply type in each book’s title and accomplish the same task. But some part of me just loves scanning books. If that BEEP could be removed, I would love it even more

BEEP.

Recommended Reads: This Is Not A Writing Manual

writing reference; This Is Not A Writing Manual; Kerri Majors
Book cover image from Goodreads.com.

Despite the title and the text on the back cover, I fully expected Kerri Majors’ This Is Not a Writing Manual to have a few lessons on how to write. Instead, Majors offers advice on how to be a writer. Even when she directly addresses the teenaged writers she expects to pick up her book, her insight is a soothing breath of fresh air to those of us out of our teens, but still reaching for publication. As a writing reference and as unlikely source of support, this book is invaluable to any writer.

Majors clearly states in the introduction just what kind of writing book this is: “This book is just you and me, in writing therapy together, so we can talk about what it means to be a writer and why the writing life is worth living.” That statement hardly does the book justice. With the tone of a friend paddling in the same canoe as the reader and her years of experience as a writer, as well as Editor and Founder of the Young Adult Review Network, Majors expertly delivers the message so many other writing reference books muddle: Being a writer is hard, but we can do it.

That sounds like an obvious takeaway. Many established writers make the same point in speeches and lectures. Majors doesn’t make the point and move on; every page reinforces it. Right after reading the chapter on bosom writing buddies, it’s clear that the entire book is meant to be the reader’s writing buddy. Maybe the book doesn’t comment on or edit our work, but it certainly commiserates and captains our personal cheerleaders. If only every other writing reference could do that.

While some of her advice might induce a few sighs because of how often they are repeated by others — such as the importance of disciplining yourself to write every day — Majors’ take on the information is more forgiving. Other writers momentarily acknowledge the conflicts with a daily writing schedule before sternly telling you to do it anyway. Majors highly recommends a schedule, but doesn’t shame the reader into it. It may be the same advice we’ve been hearing and reading for years, but the delivery is key. Some people need to be shamed into good habits. Others need a ray of sunshine like Majors to coax them into removing their coat and getting to work.

Consider adding This Is Not A Writing Manual to your list of writing references to read. The combination of writing advice and memoir makes it a welcome break from sometimes drier content. Writing is a craft that can often feel lonely and isolated. Majors cannot receive enough credit for how this book eases that loneliness.

Revisions and revisions: A never-ending cycle

Happy Easter, my friends! As I mentioned in my last blog post, revisions for the next draft of The Thieves of Traska are currently underway. It’s been a little tricky to find time to write and edit now that I’m working 30-40 hours a week at the patisserie. I’m still rearranging a few things so I can write every day and (try) to blog every week. I think aiming for a blog post on Mondays will work better. Fingers crossed!

A week ago, I had no idea how I was going to revise Thieves. I had a list of problems, courtesy of my beta readers, and a vague idea of what would fix them. But I also had a list of responses that I wasn’t sure what to do about:

  • “The chapters feel too short.”
  • “I’m not sure why Garrison sticks around.”
  • “It doesn’t feel like anything connects to a bigger scheme.”
  • “Not enough really happens in the beginning to compel me forward.”
  • “The pacing is too slow.”

Alright, redistributing where the chapters begin and end wasn’t too hard. I wrote out all the events on my whiteboard and figured out where it made the most sense to put breaks. That left a few blanks to fill in, but I’d figure that out later.

More than a few blanks, since the picture I took before erasing my board is a little fuzzy in spots. (Spoilers all over that board.)

Why does Garrison stick with Claire? According to enough of my readers, it had to be because he has a crush on her. Since that is not the real reason, I need to tweak his dialogue in places so that it becomes clear. I’m still bouncing ideas off of people on how to make it make sense.

Those last three comments drove me crazy. Nothing connects to a larger plot?! Nothing happens in the beginning?! What is wrong with the pacing?!

Asking my readers didn’t offer any clear answers. It wasn’t until I started poking around at what other people said about the pacing in YA books that I got to the heart of the problem.

Everyone in The Thieves of Traska has a personal goal driving them forward. It’s great for their motivation, but it’s not enough for the story. There’s no common goal any of them are working toward together that relates to the overall plot. Sounds like a pretty big thing to be missing from a sixth draft, right? But it’s not entirely missing. There are plenty of little actions that could be connected to something greater if I just add that central point.

So what do you add to The Thieves of Traska to make all the petty crimes Claire commits connect to a bigger picture? Why not some sort of heist? Sure! Now the revisions will include a heist.

What about the lack of events in the beginning, and the slow pace? That one was trickier to figure out. It’s not so much that nothing is happening; the stakes just aren’t high enough in what does happen. For example: when Claire and Garrison are on the road to Traska, one of the highlights of the trip is when they’re attacked by bandits. That’s exciting! But buried beneath a lot of uneventful walking.

Now, instead of mutually deciding to journey together, I have Garrison unaware that Claire is following him. These revisions help build up to the solution to the “why does Garrison stick around” problem. And, by adding the risk of discovery, the stakes are just a little bit higher.

It’s not such a boring walk anymore, is it? If I take the same approach to every chapter, perhaps the pacing problem will be fixed, as well.