Note to a kid and also myself

makegoodart
Picture by Gavin Aung Than of zenpencils.com

“You can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will.”
—Stephen King

Recently, I was going through my google drive to see what I could clean up. Docs tends to be where I start impulsive projects, or where I take notes if I’m out and about somewhere and don’t have a pen and paper handy. I get started, write a few paragraphs, realize that I have no real place to go with it and no conclusion, run out of time, and close the app. I never remember to title these bits and pieces so my drive is full of “Untitled Document” with only the creation date to differentiate them. And every now and then I go through and try to figure out what I can expand on and finish, and what I can just delete.

This time, though, I actually found something interesting. Marginally. In 2017, I was on a panel at Denver Comic Con about writing fanfic (DCC has since been renamed something that won’t get them sued by the San Diego Comic Con, who have decided that they are the only comic con, but I never remember what the new name is, so in my head the event is still, and probably always will be, the Denver Comic Con). I was working at the public library at the time, which often organizes a bunch of family-friendly panels covering various aspects of nerdly books/movies/fandom. It was fun, if terrifying, because I’m not exactly known for my public speaking skills or confidence. We covered a bunch of topics, from writing generally to a history of fanfic to an overview of a few of the largest sites, like AO3 and fanfiction.net. I went first, and spoke about writing generally. It was…not a lie, exactly, but more of an aspirational talk than a factual one, because I was (and still am) struggling with writer’s block. I was giving advice to kids that I was having trouble taking myself.

But anyway. This is more or less what I said. I have gone through and edited and updated it, since it’s two years old:


I took on the task to make a case for writing, which I think is both easy and hard, because to me it comes down to this: If you want to be a writer, if you want to write, you should write. And you should write what you want, and what you enjoy. Period, the end. That’s all you really need to be a writer. Everything else is details.

“We owe it to ourselves to tell stories.” That’s what Neil Gaiman says. Especially in this day and age, in this culture, when it’s so much easier to be a consumer than a contributor, we must tell stories. In this age when so many of our stories are fed to us by corporate behemoths who write by committee, we owe it to ourselves to tell stories. Don’t wait for someone else to write the story you want to read.

When I was in high school and college, I got intimidated out of writing what I wanted to write. I thought that if I was going to be a “real writer,” I had to write stuff like what I was reading in English class. I thought I had to write like Steinbeck or Tolkien or Toni Morrison. I don’t even know where I got that impression. It certainly wasn’t anything that anybody told me, but more of a vague idea of what a Real Writer looked like. If I’d been cognizant enough of it to articulate it, any adult would have told me what I’m telling you now: write whatever you want, and don’t worry about whether you’re measuring up to Charles Freaking Dickens. Don’t worry about symbolism or theme or whether your subject is weighty enough. Soap operas get dragged for being silly and impossible and overly dramatic, but their writers get paid like anyone else. Chuck Tingle writes stories about being pounded in the butt by [insert noun or sometimes figurative idea here] and got nominated for a Hugo award. Don’t worry about whether it’s worth it. Worry about finishing. Just write it, whatever it is that’s in your head.

So, with that manifesto out of the way, I thought I’d spend a minute talking about some specific advantages to writing fanfic especially if you’re a new writer.

Sometimes it seems like people will only consider you a “real fan” if you know everything about the thing that you’re a fan of. Don’t get me wrong, knowing everything about one thing can be cool and fun if that’s your jam. I have a friend who owns every single Daredevil comic ever written. He can name all the all the writers and artists and often what issues or arcs they worked on. If that’s where your fandom happiness lies, go for it. More power to you, and I hope you make editor someday. But if you want to write, and you’re hesitating to start because you fear that you don’t know enough yet–stop that. Start writing. Stop doing homework and start writing. There’s a ton of resources out there about how to write, but they all boil down to: Sit with a pad of paper and a pen, or with your computer, and start putting words on paper. That’s all you really need to get going. The rest you can learn.

Fandom is changing, and with the internet comes a lot of gatekeepers, but there’s also a lot of people around who are determined to burn the gates to the ground and piss all over its ashes. Just as you can write whatever you want and however you want, you can define fandom however you want. It’s your fandom. Love the Good Omens miniseries? I definitely recommend reading the book if you haven’t, I think it’s great, but don’t feel like you have to read the book and also Neil Gaiman’s tumblr asks where he answers questions about it and also the script book and also the TV companion book before you can write your story. Do you want to cosplay Wonder Woman even though you’ve only read a few issues, but Comic Con is soon and you love her armor? I sure won’t stop you. And anyone at a con who starts quizzing you about all her writers and artists and storylines is doing it wrong. Don’t let them discourage you. Fan fiction is great because you can just start.

If you’re wanting to get published, sure, different standards come into play. Grammar and style and structure and (probably) using characters you created instead of somebody else’s. But this is fanfic. This is fun. There is where nothing but possibility lives.

You get better at writing by writing. The first thing you write will probably be terrible. That’s okay. The more you write, the more you’ll find your voice.

Ripping Off Scalzi, Day Two: Money

fabian-blank-78637-unsplashI just saw Avengers: Endgame, which I feel like I can’t talk about yet, so instead I thought I’d come back to this entry that I started writing oh, hey, six months ago.

This is another entry in which I take inspiration from John Scalzi, on his blog Whatever, as he continues his twenty-year retrospective of blog writing. He is on day 26. I am on day 2. At this rate, I’ll be able to keep bouncing back to his blog until the end of the year. Up today: Money! And how I have none of it! (Well I do have some and I’m insanely lucky in some ways and I suppose we’ll get to that.) So far Scalzi has blogged about cats and money, two things that I don’t have any of.

I grew up in a house that always had enough money, enough food, Christmas presents under the tree. I’m fairly certain that my parents never had to worry about having enough money for Christmas, though they didn’t exactly go wild with materialism either. They were and are very deliberate with their money, something I’ve only come to realize in hindsight and observe as an adult. Like Christmas and birthday presents were always a thing, but cable TV? Never a thing. We never had cable television in my house. We only had dial up internet until after I moved out. But that had less to do than my parents not being able to afford it than it did my parents not wanting to spend money on garbage. We could go on a trip every year. My parents have their retirement worked out. My dad pays off his credit card bill every month. Whatever long term plan the books tell you to follow to financial security, my parents followed it.

And then they raised me, and I had no idea what the hell to do with money until well past age 30. Osmosis and environment didn’t do the job there. Part of it is just that I barely ever had any money of my own. In elementary school I got $1.25 a week in allowance, and even though this was the early 90s, it was still below average for my classmates. In middle school I got $5. The last couple years of high school I got $20, but I was responsible for buying my own lunches at school, which ate most of it (I never did what would’ve been the smart thing and made my lunch while still pocketing the $20). I think I was a junior when I got my first retail job, and I worked all through college, but after college I never quite transitioned from retail/coffee shop jobs into “professional” jobs. I just kept coffee shopping. For most of my twenties I probably earned between $20-$25k a year. I had roommates, I had a landlord who was happy to rent their space to us for below market value for some reason, I never went to the doctor, I didn’t own a car. But still, every dollar I made was basically spent the minute it landed it my account. I never learned to budget, never learned to not splurge. If you know you’re going to be running out of money anyway, why not just spend it on something that’s fun? If you have to buy food, why not buy hummus instead of beans and rice?

Could I have been thriftier? Sure. But I also had a fundamental income problem. I was earning like $9/hr and had no health insurance. (I think this is a really common millennial dilemma, by the way: Not being able to figure out where your own mistakes end and the shitty system you find yourself in begins.)

In 2010, I made the dumb decision to go back to school. Dumb because I had no way to pay for it, so I took out loans and asked my parents to help me, and they did because education is basically the one thing they’ll always help pay for. This led to my dad discovering exactly how bad I was with money, how much I don’t keep track of it, how much of his I was spending, how little of it I could account for it. I remember him shoving a paper copy of his budget/yearly planned expenditures in my face in frustration, asking Why the hell I couldn’t just do this. What was so hard about this?! And I felt so dumb. So, so so stupid. It took a couple years before I realized, wait, where the hell did he think I was supposed to learn this? When was the budgeting 101 conversation supposed to happen? Should he have taught it to me? Should I have learned it from school? Should I have gotten a book out of the library? Like I’m sorry I’m a dummy and I’m sorry I didn’t take steps to fix this ten years ago but also basically no one ever told me how I should do it or even that I should learn it. It was just assumed that I knew. 

Actually, I had tried to learn, now that I think about it. I read a couple books by Suze Orman and other personal finance people whose names I heard from Oprah. I had a Mint account where you were supposed to set a budget, and I did the thing they tell you where you write down every single cent you spend in a little book. This is supposed to make you more deliberate and thoughtful with your spending, kind of how logging all your calories supposedly helps you eat less. Neither of those things worked for me. I went overbudget every month. I would forget to write down my expenditures after a few days of trying. It just did not ever work for me. It was like, every month, I looked back, saw that I had fucked up once again, tried to do better the next month, only to discover that I’d gone overbudget on everything again. It was exhausting, and discouraging, and just made me feel like an idiot. Like maybe I’m just bad at budgeting. I always struggled with math. Maybe budgeting just wasn’t my thing.

But anyway. I came back from New York poorer, sadder, and feeling a whole lot dumber than when I left. And now I had student loans, and the same income (once I found a job) as before, so I had to learn budgeting. Had to.

Somehow I stumbled upon zero-based budgeting, and no exaggeration, it changed my life. I use a service called YNAB (You Need A Budget), which costs money but it unlocked a whole world of personal budgeting for me, so it’s worth it. It’s also called “the envelope system,” which you may have heard about through Dave Ramsey. (Dave apparently didn’t get along with Oprah, which is how I ended up trying to follow Suze Orman’s system instead of his all those years ago.) Instead of looking backward at all the money I had spent in the last month, instead of trying to budget based on output, zero-based budgeting has you look at the amount of money that you have, and allocate funds to categories based on that. Like if your rent is $1000, but your paycheck today was only $750, you cannot put $1000 in your rent category. You just can’t. That money doesn’t exist. This somehow managed to switch my perspective around so that I was looking forward with my money instead of backwards. And I started to think about my money in terms of category balances, instead of bank balances. The fact that my bank account has $1000 in it means nothing, my Movies category has $0 in it, and so I’m not going to the movies. YNAB also highlights categories that you’ve fully funded with a little green circle, and I’ve kind of made it my mission to get categories green and keep them green. It gamifies it just enough that it works for me.

So that’s been my past four years or so. Turning into a person who actually knows what’s in her bank account and what her credit card balances are. I have a retirement account with multiple hundreds of dollars in it! I also have a personal net worth in the negatives (because of student loans), but I’m paying on those too and watching balances decrease. I save for trips and pay for them out of pocket instead of on credit cards. Who knew. I’m a person who can budget, given a wage that is more than half the median national income and the tools that make sense to my brain. And that is no small victory, as far as I’m concerned.

 

Random resources that helped me, in case you’re looking for help:

  • YNAB software. It currently costs $84 a year, which is probably less than you’re paying for Netflix, but is also more than I’m paying currently (I got grandfathered in to what the cost was when I signed up). If $84 seems like too much, they have a YouTube channel where you can watch tutorials for free and get a sense of zero-based budgeting. There’s a bit of a learning curve with the software, but once it clicks, it’s like a whole new world and you’re off to the races.
  • Dave Ramsey. I listened to his podcast a bunch, both to learn and to keep myself in the mindset of being mindful with my money. I’m pretty sure I disagree with him about just about every social issue, and I don’t like how he steers college kids towards prosperous careers instead of doing-what-you-love careers, but when it comes to finance stuff, he has absolutely helped me.
  • Bad with Money, a podcast by Gaby Dunn. It also helped keep my attention focused, and I appreciated her perspective of “I’m fucked up and don’t know anything about this and that’s my bad, but also, the system itself is not much better.”
  • Various communities on reddit, including r/personalfinance and r/ynab.

Ripping off John Scalzi, Day One

Over at his blog Whatever, John Scalzi (a science fiction writer who I first started following on Twitter and then I started following his blog and then, finally, I started reading his books) has been celebrating 20 years of writing said blog by posting about a different topic every day. As he said on September 1st, “I will pick a topic and then discuss it through the prism of two decades of time, from 1998 through to today.” And I thought, that’s a good idea. I am still searching for the magic button that will get me back to writing every day, or at least regularly (no such button exists, but I’m searching for it anyway), and while I haven’t been writing in the same place, like he has, I have been blogging on and off for almost 20 years. For me, if I look back to 1998 I was still in high school; while Scalzi was in his 20s and professionally established. But it could be fun, and if you can’t write for three straight weeks about yourself, well, I don’t know what to tell you. (Also, yes, it’s September 16th, and yes, I’ve been watching Scalzi post and thinking, “Oh, I really should get on top of this posting thing” every day for the last two weeks.)

So, with that,

1998/2018 Day One: Cats.

I’m allergic to cats, and so don’t have any. The end.

 

 

 

 

…….

 

Okay just kidding. But also I have zero thoughts about cats from my high school days. They were not on my radar. When I was a baby and we lived in Louisiana, my family had a grey tabby cat named Peter that I think I have one hazy recollection of. Peter didn’t come with us to Colorado, and I’ve never seen a picture of him, and I honestly don’t know if he was re-homed, or if he ran away, or if we abandoned him, or if a gator got him. Growing up, my family had dogs, two of them: Sandy (a Shetland Sheepdog that we got when I was 6) and Cheyenne (a mutt that we got when I was 10). Sandy was my brother’s, officially, but more or less surrendered to the care of my mom; Cheyenne was mine and I’m pleased to say that I remembered to feed her and bathe her and take her to the vet (and she slept in my room, as opposed to Sandy, who slept in the basement for some reason) until I moved out for college.

The culture of owning dogs has changed a lot since 1998, or at least, my awareness of it has. We never carried bags to pick up dog poo on walks with our dogs, and I have no idea if we were terrible, inconsiderate neighbors or if dog poo bags weren’t a thing back then like they are now. We weren’t very diligent about obedience training them, either, but as they were both pretty low-key dogs, this didn’t have any terrible consequences for us humans or for the dogs. I particularly loved Cheyenne, as she was “my” dog, and when I was in the middle of more than my share of teenage adolescent angst, both my sister and my dog did quite a lot to get me through it, without either of them realizing they were doing so.

These days, in 2018, I have a lot of dogs but also no dogs. My roommates have two dogs, Maggie and George, who are both wonderful creatures. Maggie goes running with me, and cuddles with me on the couch, and hides from crying babies in my room. George is enormous (he’s a Malamute mix) and hairy and is smart enough to decide if he really wants to listen to you when you ask him to do something. (Maggie understands that if she does what you ask her to, then you will love her, and more than anything Maggie wants you to love her.) So I live with dogs, and they’re great dogs, but they’re not my dogs.

georgemaggie
Good dogs.

I also (somewhat accidentally) have a dogsitting business, because I told my friends Erin and Tanya that I would dogsit for their Great Danes Scarlett and Luka, and I did a good job so they recommended me to at least half a dozen friends. There’s Toli and Ellie (and Tate); Sketcher, Benedict, and Abigail; Winny and Marty; Chunk and Sally; Frankie and Moby; Callie; and Jude; good dogs all. I also put up a profile on Rover and that got me a few clients, and now I’m out of my house for usually at least 7 days out of the month (one of my normal clients, Marley, I’m usually with for one or two weekends a month). As a dogsitter, I beg of you, please train your dogs to walk nicely on a leash if nothing else (especially if you have more than one of them). I’m used to dogs not listening to commands to sit or come, because I’m not their person, but oh god, if they could only walk on a leash, everything would be wonderful.

I also do catsitting sometimes, but as I said above, I’m allergic to cats so that’s not my favorite (I think I’m not their favorite either, since I don’t let them cuddle me.) It gives me some extra money to put towards my student loans, and some quiet weekends–besides me and my adult roommates, and the dogs, there’s also a 5-year-old and an 18-month-old in the house, who I love dearly but who are also not always very quiet.

marley
Marley found a ball.

 

I would love, someday, to have a home of my own and a dog of my own. I have had a dog that was truly mine since…about 1998, now that I think about it. I moved out of my parents’ house in 2001, and Cheyenne died a few years after that, and ever since then, I haven’t had a dog of my own. But all these lovely loaner dogs who hang out with me for a few days at a time, not to mention Maggie and George, do a great deal to fill up the dog-shaped hole in my life. Good dogs.

Fiction Friday–A Tiny Space Opera

hubble1This is another flash fiction story from a Chuck Wendig flash fiction challenge, which he apparently posted in 2015 and I happened upon it in 2016 or something and thought it was current so I wrote half of a thing, and then finished it in 2017. Here’s the thing. Note that I read basically no space opera/military sci fi/battles in space thing, so please do not write to me telling me that I got space opera wrong. Also, because this is the internet, the grammar error in the first sentence is deliberate and I’m not fixing it.

 

Me and my platoon strapped ourselves into our seats and snapped our face masks in place. Hyperdrive jumps are liable to get bumpy on exit and re-entry, so we all checked to see that the barf bags were handy, and each of us hoped that we wouldn’t be the one who had to use one (and then get roundly mocked for it).

The commander and the pilot were up front, programming the hyperdrive. I put my head back and tried to go to sleep. They’d sounded Reveille hours before the usual roll out, ordered us to ready for maneuvers. Nobody, not even the commander, had been told of the mission beforehand. The element of surprise was vital, we were told. No leaks. Surprise attack. We’d storm their shores and end the war. We weren’t the first to trip off to battle, just the next wave. Commander said he’d have orders when we came out of hyperspace.

We all bit down, the pilot engaged the hyperdrive, all of our insides lurched backwards and then caught up. The ship went dark, and all that all of us felt was eerie nothingness for an unknown period of time.

And then–lurch, shudder, and an alarming cracking noise from elsewhere in the ship–we were out of hyperspace. We braced ourselves, unbuckling from our harnesses and going for our guns, sure that we were dropping into a firefight and were about to go out the gangway.
Instead, nothing.
Silent space.
We looked sideways at each other, out of power and out of knowledge, just dumb stupid soldiers who didn’t know what to do if they weren’t fighting.

We could hear the commander cursing at the pilot, double checking coordinates. We waited.

And then, we were descending, entering atmosphere, watching the sky change color, become something recognizable as sky. We were ordered to shelve our weapons. The ship landed, the hatch opened, the air hissed outward. We exited the ship by the gangway, blinking in the bright light. It didn’t look like we were going to die today after all.

The commander pointed towards the…well, off toward some direction on the compass, anyway where he could see the rooftops of a town, maybe two klicks away. We formed up and fell into step. Nobody said anything. Nobody knew (except the commander) if we were deserters, if we were lost. Just that, so far at least, we didn’t seem to be dying today.

Fiction Friday–“Something Scary”

A writer I follow, Chuck Wendig, often posts Flash Fiction challenges on his blog on Fridays. I got this one from a January post, so I can’t submit a link to it in his comments as he says to do, but I’m posting it here anyway because fuck writer’s block. Since Wendig is mostly a science fiction author, I decided to try writing a science fiction-y story.

 

Morning routines should be routine. Even when you’ve got a chronic, potentially life-threatening illness, there are certain things that just always happen, and a morning routine is one of those things. Even if–especially if–your chronic, potentially life-threatening illness is kept in check by (among other things) a neural net of brain implants in your cerebellum and temporal lobe that keep you breathing, blinking, standing, walking, talking.

Wake up, coffee, toast, update neural software, brush teeth, shower, get dressed, make lunch for later.

That is my routine. Every morning.

I like routine.

And then one day. Just some stupid regular Tuesday.

Wake up, coffee, toast, update–

stutter stutter stutter blank

Wake up, coffee–but there’s already coffee. I already made coffee but I have to make coffee again.

Coffee, toast, up–

circle circle circle circle blank

No, brain, I already made coffee, why are we making coff–

Some corner of my brain knows that this is not the routine but I can’t–

coffee toaste up–

blue blue blue blue

I am crying now. Coffee toast coffee toast what was wrong why can’t I stop–

update

cycle cycle cycle cycle

Somebody help me, somebody come check on me–

error error error error

blank

Harry Potter is 20

1200px-Harry_Potter_wordmark.svg(My writing life is still slow. Which is why this is being posted a week after everyone else posted their Harry Potter reminisces.)

 
I work in a public library, which means I have frequent (and frequently random) conversations with customers about books and local politics and the idiocy of computers. Yesterday, a customer came up to me and started telling me that Harry Potter was 20 years old and all about her Harry Potter memories (she did this with no introduction or conversation opener whatsoever; just walked up to me while I was shelving holds and started chattering at me about Harry Potter). So that was basically how I celebrated the week, which is (in some small way) in keeping with my relationship with Harry Potter for the last 20 years.

 
I started reading the Harry Potter series in 2000. I remember because I read it on a road trip with my family, our last big trip as a family because I was graduating high school and my brother was graduating college and moving to Seattle. I started working at a bookstore the next year, and for the last three books (which came out in 2003, 2005, and 2007), I worked the Harry Potter release parties. When the Deathly Hallows came out, I was also working at a public library; I got to stay late the night before the release date and process the holds so that they would be ready for customers first thing in the morning. In short: I have been a part of getting the Harry Potter books into people’s hands for almost as long as I’ve been reading them, and in a lot of ways, this is fundamental to why I find them important books, and what they mean to me, beyond just being a fun and enjoyable story.

 
I was a reader, all through my childhood. It was one of the things that made me weird in school. I was never teased for it, I was never ostracized just because I was a reader, but I was definitely the kid that maxed out all the reading lists, got in trouble for reading in class, read while I was walking home from school, fucked up the curve on writing assignments because I read so much that my writing skill just followed right along. The other kids just acknowledged that this was a thing that I did. When I started reading Harry Potter (well past the magical formulating years of reader-hood when one book drops into your life and changes you), it was just another book, another fun story. This was also before social media; certainly before I was on the Internet with any regularity, before fandom became the behemoth it is today. Those early years of Harry Potter, maybe even up to the first book release party, I certainly knew that Harry Potter was popular, but it wasn’t the sort of thing it is now–where people discuss and bond over it.

 
It was the book release parties where I got to see the fandom for the first time, and more importantly, got to see something that I think adults who grow up reading (and who were often the “weird kid who reads” in their class at school) always want to see more of: kids who are fucking excited about books. Weird Reader Kids, all over the place, all in one bookstore, instead of scattered from classroom to classroom. Kids up past their bedtime, getting chocolate frogs and butterbeer from the bookstore coffee shop. Kids dressed up in wizard robes. Kids waiting in line for hours. Kids getting handed their books at midnight, and then sprinting for the door to get to their parents’ cars to get back home so they can start reading.

 
They were late nights, after the book release parties, when me and my coworkers would be at work until the wee hours of the morning cleaning up the remnants of chocolate milks and fire whiskies and double espressos that the parents needed to stay up. Cookie crumbs and pastry wrappers. Dirty coffee mugs and plates. I didn’t care. I loved it. I wanted to make books exciting and fun for these kids in a way that I never got to experience.

 
The movies kept the community going, I think, in between books, and then after the books were done. The movies pulled in a lot of people who weren’t Weird Reader kids, and even though I haven’t seen most of them since they were in theaters, they broadened and cemented the fandom. I went to a couple movie release nights and they were much the same mix of fun, overwhelming, noisy nerddom as the book releases. And by then, the books had been around long enough that older siblings were indoctrinating younger siblings. Livejournal was a thing. Tumblr started to exist. Fan fiction started leaking out of its previously-ironclad hinterlands. And Harry truly stepped out of the books and into our heads.

 
Even though I don’t actively participate in the fandom that much, so much of that fandom is what Harry Potter is for me. I don’t write fanfic or cosplay or draw fan art or even really get into long discussions with people online. I like the books. I like the stories. But really, what I love–what I adore–is that this books are so huge, took over so much of the culture. And maybe the kids who read during class feel a little less weird these days than they did when I was young. Maybe they can talk about Harry with their classmates, as well as in online forums. I don’t know exactly when nerdy fandom went from a thing that only happened at Comic Cons to a thing that happened all over the internet; it seemed fully fledged and omnipresent by the time I happened upon it. But I’m really happy that this is a thing in the world that exists, even though I only ever observe it from the sidelines.

 
At some point (and I resisted doing this for a long time because I hate having to give my email address to things because then everyone sends you email) (Also, come on, I’m an adult, I don’t need Sorting, I am too old, sniff sniff), I went over to Pottermore and got myself Sorted. It was…weirdly emotional, and resonant, and flattering, when I got Sorted into Hufflepuff. So, here’s me:
House: Hufflepuff
Patronus: Occamy
Wand: Willow wood w/dragon heartstring

 

PS. Also, one thing I discovered in the week it took me to write this: Harry Potter might be 20, but “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls is apparently 21 this week, and that makes me feel old in a way that Harry Potter does not.