Category: Blog

Pushing Through Misery

image of marine stuck in the mud

This is what I feel like when I try to do cardio.

I’ve been getting pretty out of shape lately. I’m fairly small, and slender, so it’s hard for someone else to tell, but it’s true. It’s a summer thing. Everyone else gets in shape in summer because they get outside and walk more. I do, too. It’s just that I walk to happy hour, and dinner, and ice cream.  It’s just so good, okay? But like, I’m gaining weight, and my checkbook is losing it. I really need it to be autumn, basically, so that darkness and rain and cold encourage me to stay home and do more actual cooking.

Earlier today, I was talking about this with my sister. We like to conquer this stuff when the problems are still small. We grew up watching people struggle with dieting after it had become a monumental task. Usually, a trip to GNC for some meal-replacement protein shakes does the trick, but really, it would help a lot if I got into better exercise habits. I was, for a while. I did yoga two to three times a week, and while I was pretty terrible at it, it really helped, and enjoyed doing it. Then layoffs happened, and I had to cut my spending down. That’s why I joined Planet Fitness–way cheaper. Now it debits ten bucks from my account every month so like, why am I not in shape? I’m paying them, aren’t I?

I wish that were how it worked.

Exercise for me is a big struggle. The idea of being a runner seems so romantic. I watch people sign up for 5K’s and half marathons and go on trail runs on Sunday mornings, and it brings them such joy. I want to run for hours, achieve that state of meditative exhilaration. But I just hate it so much. I can hike, and do yoga , for a given value of “can.” I suck at both, but I enjoy enough about those activities that the fact that it’s exercise becomes a secondary consideration. Hiking, I want to get somewhere. The top of a waterfall. The edge of a cliff. Somewhere. But running? It could be on the best trail ever, or the treadmill at the gym, or around my block. No distraction is sufficient to distract me from the fact that I long for death if I have to run another mile.

So my sister and I discussed the possibility of getting up at the crack of dawn to hit the gym before work, building a better habit together. It’s the best option, because evenings are just too hard and too crowded. But 5am? UGHHHHHHH. I mean, we have to do it. And if I can get into good enough shape, maybe I can join an actual organized class that’s more interesting than Planet Fitness.

Anyway, at this point, you’re probably all wondering why I’m talking about fitness when this is, ostensibly, a writing blog. But I’ve sort of been having the same issue with writing lately. I was doing really well building up my writing muscles, but that sort of died. I have a freelance gig so I write all day, but nothing interesting, and when I get home, all I want to do is turn my brain off. And all my drafts in progress are really difficult. Vague, character driven, subtle. One of them (the trees one) I’m sure I’m writing all the wrong scenes. I don’t know what the right scenes are, but it feels like I’m doing it wrong. The other, I kind of know what I’m doing, but I have second thoughts about whether the whole concept and organization will actually work (it probably won’t). And I have people wanting to read both, and the inevitable let-down when I finish, show them, and then watch them realize that, nope, it actually is complete shit. She was not being hyperbolic.

The thing is, it’s really, really hard to make yourself write something when you know you’re making a mistake. But what else can you do? Inspiration doesn’t strike if you wait for it. Sometimes you just have to write garbage, love the garbage, and then sit there and take it when your entire crit circle a.) tries to find a nice way to tell you it’s garbage, or b.) gets distracted by the shiny bits and thinks you actually did well, when you know deep down they’re wrong. It’s hard in the way that running three miles is hard for a lazy POS like myself. And like that 5k, there might be no rescuing this one. I will still come in last, even if I try really hard to run faster. I might even die, like the dog in Stone Fox, heart exploding in my chest feet from the finish line. The story might never actually be good. But maybe the next one will be slightly better, if you can stop making the same god damn mistakes as always.

on character transformation (and a song I’m obsessed with)

I’ve inflicting this song on everyone I know for a while now, so it was only a matter of time before I wrote about it:

I came across The Oh Hello’s by accident one day, through another one of their songs, Pale White Horse. I found it while I was avoiding working on a story (which, hopefully, you’ll get to read soon!) by reading fanfic. The writer had posted the song in the chapter header as her inspiration for that section. I listened to it, and again, and again, without context, and found that it perfectly matched the cold and somber atmosphere I needed to get to the end of my project. And then  I found out it was part of a The Screwtape Letters concept album, and I’m a sucker for any band who will use music to force the world to acknowledge their obsession with a book.

Anyway. The Lament of Eustace Scrubb is not from that concept album, but it falls in line with the band’s larger CS Lewis obsession. (By the way, I haven’t read Narnia in ages. Who’s up for a reread?) For those few uninitiated, Eustace Scrubb was introduced in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which is one of those books everyone seems to like enough, but no one ever talks about, at least in my experience. Eustace is the intolerable, arrogant, selfish cousin of the Pevensie siblings, whom Edmund and Lucy had the misfortune of living with.

Now, I’ve written about unlikable characters before. But, I sort of love Edmund? Which is a total shock. I think it has to do with age, and perspective. When I first read Narnia, I was young. It was easy to despise Edmund. He was a cruel, whiny bully who was mean to my favorites. And sure, he changes, but he was taking page time from the people I already liked! And yet, as I revisit it, I find his character arc beautiful, relatable in its simplicity, and satisfying in its tangible, outward construction.

I didn’t understand this before. So when I came across this song, my first thought was, “Why would anyone write a lament for Eustace?”  This band got it before me, and listening inspired me to give his story another chance.

Maybe it’s age and experience that have changed my perspective, made it easier for me to see through his cruelty early on, to empathize with the fear that motivates it. But I find that I can. I can understand his behavior, which is repulsive, and through that understanding, connect with him. He’s a bully, but a lonely one, living now alongside a sibling bond he could never hope to penetrate, with a mother whose love, so easily revoked, hinges on that same arrogance that victimizes the Pevensies.

But I think it’s more than that. There’s something really tragic and gorgeous about his sudden, dramatic, symbolic transformation. Eustace transforming, on one level, into a literal representation of his dragon-greed, but on another, into something as big and powerful as the airs he’s been putting on from the beginning. Becoming the thing he’s been trying to become to chase away that fear once and for all. And then, once transformed, to look into the pool and see clearly what he has become. And then to accept willingly the pain and anguish of tearing his mistakes from his flesh, and moving beyond them.

And yes, there’s the obvious baptism metaphor, and sin metaphor, but what really sticks with me is that moment of realization, that Eustace has, unknowing, become unrecognizable even to himself. To stare himself in the face and know suddenly that, having gotten what he wanted, he never wanted this.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this analysis. But it’s something, as a writer, I really want to do. The slow destruction of a character by his own actions, and a moment of clarity, when that character realizes his mistakes and accepts culpability and the visceral pain of remaking himself to get past them.

Things I’ve Learned: Raising & Answering Questions in Fiction

Many–hell, most of my stories and projects never see the light of day. A lot of times, when people say that, it’s a way to humanize their otherwise spectacular efforts. “Yeah, sure, I’m anthologized in Best American Short Stories and was nominated for a Pulitzer, but I also write lots of other stuff that I don’t publish.” And sure, it’s true, but as a tactic meant to bring the big shot down onto the level of us little guys, I’ve never thought it worked very well.  (Feel free to call me on this if I ever get to that point.) But it is true, even though I have yet to earn a fiction pub credit to my name. I do throw away most of my work.

In the past, this has been because I had no audience or workshop, wrote for an echo chamber, or just plain didn’t see stuff through to the ending. I’m trying to get better about that, but it’s a work in process, and sometimes, you just have to admit that crap is crap. But in the mean time, I persist, because, regardless of my skill or lack thereof in actually writing stuff, most of my ideas have some kind of merit. Deep down.

I have a fantasy project right now that’s mostly the result of a challenge. (Note to self: If your friends are asking why you’ve never done something, don’t respond with the most ridiculous possible scenario. They’ll make you do it.) It has elements of space and high fantasy in an alternate present setting, and is, more or less, a coming of age story. It’s also completely stupid. (And no, don’t tell me it’s not stupid. It is. That is, weirdly, one of its strengths.)

Writing this thing is like beating my head against a wall. Part of that is me. It’s relatively undignified, and much less introspective than my usual work. I take myself too seriously, and part of this challenge is to stop doing that. But there’s not really a plot. This is a point of contention, by the way. Certain people, you know who you are, will call me on this. But the thing is, it doesn’t. It’s a situation. A scenario. There’s an internal conflict, but nothing really going on on the outside, other than random bullshit, and no particular impetus to address it in a timely fashion. Infuriatingly, I know this can work. I’ve read great literary works with half the plot. So I tried writing it anyway, and ended up this close to a breakdown over how impossible and awful it all was. Is.

If you follow me on social media, you probably know what I’m talking about, because I vomited my Inadequate Writer Feels all over twitter. The next day, when I reread it, and still felt the same way (though less emotional over the whole thing), I did what any self respecting wannabe writer would do in 2016. I googled it. “What to do when you hate your own writing.” I can’t be the only one who does this.

Slash & Burn (Or: How I Tricked Eric Into Thinking I’m A Good Editor)

Most of my writing skills are smoke and mirrors.

No, that’s not true. But it feels like it is, which is relevant.

Let’s start again: I still attend writing group. A frequent topic of conversation between a few of us is whether I’m any good at revision. Eric, who runs the group, says yes, vehemently. It flatters my ego, except for how I know it mostly isn’t true, except for when it is. A lot of things flatter my ego, but I’m pretty good at beating it back down again. That’s also relevant. But for various reasons, he’s been asking me how I edit because, whatever I’m doing, it creates an immediate impression of vast and dramatic improvement. This is belied, of course, by the fact that nothing is ever finished.

Anyway, I told him I’d write a blog post about my revision process so that he could steal it. My process is as follows:

Shannon Does The 10 Books Meme

Over on tumblr, there’s a meme floating around that asks each participant to list ten books that have affected or stuck with the writer in some way, and to explain what it is and why. It’s definitely one of the more labor intensive memes out there, but I will go to strenuous effort to avoid doing work, and it ended up being surprisingly rewarding. I liked it enough that I wanted to include the list here as well.

So here we are: 10 books that were important to me for various reasons, in no particular order other than my own circuitous thought patterns. Since this isn’t tumblr, I won’t bother tagging anyone, but it would be great if you could share your important books in the comments, or on your own blog.

it’s been a while…

It’s been a long time since I revisited this site. I changed the appearance, removed some content, edited some other content… and then disappeared again.

Here’s what I’ve been up to these past few (ha) months:


  • Gotten a job
  • Moved to a new town
  • Lost a job (curse you, layoffs!)
  • Freelanced
  • Joined a fiction workshop
  • Made new, talented writer friends
  • Written a bunch of short fiction
  • Gotten a ton of occasionally ego-bruising critique
  • Become a much better writer

Overall, an absence (mostly) well spent. Seriously. I cannot possibly understate the value of a regular workshop. Especially one in which people are in many ways more talented than you. The Philadelphia area is lucky enough to be home to quite a few writing groups of varying quality, membership, and organization. There’s the one full of published authors who like to sit around a table and talk business. There’s the really big one with the annual membership fee, occasional workshops and a bunch of guest speakers. And then there’s mine. Free, at my local library, and best of all, All Critique All The Time.

One of the things I’ve learned about my own writing, over the course of the past few years, is how much less I know about it than I once credited myself. I’ve written before (though not here) about the process of realizing my ineptitude tearing myself down, and learning to write well for myself as a once-again-beginner. For me, at that time in my life, that humility was something I deeply, desperately needed (even if, it might be argued, my self esteem really DIDN’T need it). Taking my ego out of the process, viewing myself as someone with something to learn, helped get me started. What I didn’t realize I didn’t know? How to revise.

Revision is something I never truly saw to the end before recently. I always saw it as maybe two or three passes max, cleaning up a story that is, for the most part, already done. I never truly appreciated the amount of work that goes into doing it right. Slogging through your seventh pass, rewriting entire sections, only to send it out for crit and find out you’re STILL not finished. I never realized how little of being a talented writer is, well, talent, and how much of it is sheer, bloody-minded persistence. This is something I never would have learned without my workshop group. Without having torn everything down to start over, killing my ego, and viewing myself as a beginner, I never would have had the nerve to take harsh criticism, digest it, and then make the huge, sweeping changes that really count.

So, thank you, writer friends! Thank you for telling me the truth, even when it sounded like the Worst Thing Ever. And thank you for listening to my late night despair, reminding me that all is not lost despite the Sisyphean task ahead of me.

If anyone reads this, I implore you: get a workshop group of your own, with a blend of talents and a wealth of ambition. Get a group that will knock you down a few pegs when you really need it, and who can also cheer you on and prop you up.

Book Review: The Fault In Our Stars, by John Green

Book Cover: The Fault In Our Stars by John Green

originally published on Goodreads in April 2012

The Fault In Our Stars by John Green is a difficult book to classify. On one hand, it’s a cancer book. This fact is as inescapable to a reader as the disease is for the characters. But to call it “a cancer book” somehow diminishes the work as a whole. At its core, The Fault In Our Stars is a novel about inevitability, about things that don’t last, and more than anything, about the things that do.

Hazel Grace Lancaster is the protagonist-cum-narrator, an astonishingly intelligent and terminally ill teenage college student whose view of life is necessarily colored by the fact of its brevity. For Hazel, the course of her illness and treatment means that she is effectively living on borrowed time. To a large degree this applies to most other characters as well, whom she meets regularly at a psychologist-mandated teen cancer support group. Her friend Isaac, for example, previously lost an eye to cancer and eventually loses the other. Augustus Waters, a newcomer to the group and the eventual object of Hazel’s unwilling affection, is three years in remission from osteosarcoma. Hazel herself, though in limbo due to the “miraculous” affects of an experimental fictional drug, is permanently fixed to a portable oxygen tank.

This real and accepted fact of death frees Green to break the tension and infect the book with much needed humor. Granted, it’s grim and morbid humor, but it is appropriate to the characters and nevertheless effective in maintaining a balance between heavy introspection and actual readability. Having accepted death for themselves, Hazel and her friends instead grapple with more existential crises: the durability of the marks they leave on the world and other people, the inevitability of oblivion, and the scars their inevitable and untimely passage might leave behind on the people they love. Not to mention the fact of living with obvious and pitiable disability, interacting with the well-intentioned though tactless masses. (The most surprising element of the book for me was its side theme of tolerance, specifically through the delicate balance of attention, inattention understanding, and the difficulties in relating on both sides.)

how the hell do people write personal essays?

Writer's Block I

“Writer’s Block I” By Drew Coffman.

No, seriously, where do they get the material?

I’ve been working on a new short story lately, tentatively called “The Summer House,” and one of my favorite modes of procrastination is scrolling through the endless recommended essays on Medium. I made an account, but seriously, don’t bother looking for me. I posted exactly one thing, which is Death Girl, which I can’t even get anyone to read on THIS site let alone on one full of better writers.

Despite my single, lonely contribution (sitting pretty at zero hits ever), Medium is admittedly more of an essay and interest-based journalism outlet than a fiction one. I don’t know who owns it, but it looks like the bastard love child of twitter and tumblr, minus a good deal of the stupid. I can spend hours there reading jargon-free science essays curated for the interested civilian and advice and essays about travel and personal discovery. Which, you know, isn’t great for my productivity or anything, but it has at least benefited me aspirationally.

One of my favorite pieces is by Stephanie Rice, describing her experiences with a friendly new Craigslist roommate who left one day, presumably to visit an ex, and then died, leaving the writer/roommate to find out two days later on facebook. She says something interesting about her motivations in living there in the first place:

Book Review: Dark but for the Stars by Nathan Crowder

dark but for stars book coverSeveral months ago, I happened to be on twitter while Nate Crowder was discussing the release of his then-new short fiction collection. I can’t find the original tweets anymore, but I believe he said something to the effect of, how lucky am I to have a job where I can write stories about deer people?

Well. I immediately put the brakes on. “Deer people!?” I said, bursting with envy. “Why didn’t I think of that!?”

So we got to talking. He described his project, a horror/sci-fi short fiction collection with hints of Lovecraft. I bemoaned that Amazon’s publishing program demanded exclusivity to its devices and that I’d never get to read it, and, well, the long and short of it is that he was kind enough to grant me a review copy.

Then student teaching crept up on me, in addition to a whole host of other classes I hadn’t realized I needed to take. Before I knew it, this blog and all its pending reviews effectively got shelved. Now, in the aftermath of that dubious adventure, I find myself chasing monstrous dust bunnies out of the corners of my life, trying to situate myself to pursue writing more seriously. Which means making good on a few promises.

Sorry, Nate. I promised you a review about a thousand years ago, and somehow never posted it.

Unlikeable Characters (Or: I Love This Story But I Want To Punch The Protagonist In The Face)

I’ve had a lot of conversations recently about good and bad characterization. Specifically, unlikeable characters and their viability in narratives, and the fine line between constructive criticism and “I just really hate that guy and it’s coloring everything else.”

About a month ago as I write this, I had this debate with Josh Neff of goblin cartoons regarding Lev Grossman‘s Magicians trilogy. I have the first two volumes on my nook, and had just preordered the third in hardback, because all of the first run were promised to come signed. I have it, now, by the way, and it’s lovely. I only have two signed books, this and John Green‘s The Fault in our Stars which ran a similar promotion. I have long nursed an impulse to start a proper book collection, first editions and signed copies, and this is all I have so far managed to make of it. Josh had said that he was never able to understand the hoopla surrounding the books, because the characters all seemed like “selfish assholes who found magic and the world boring.”