“The Wrackspurt Infestation” is my Harry Potter fanfic, pretty much my love letter to Ginny Weasley and Luna Lovegood. It follows Ginny after her traumatic first year at Hogwarts, and in this chapter, she finally, finally [redacted for spoilers].
Check out the fic at Archive of Our Own. Let me know what you think of it in the comments!
As I wrote on here last month, I’ve recently decided to get serious about my writing. This means, of course, I’m devoting a lot of my time to writing in some form or another–writing fan fiction; writing original, serial fiction; working on more long-form original fiction; writing professional copy for websites; or writing here on my blog.
It also, as it turns out, means I’m writing a lot of social media posts.
There are a host of thinkpieces and resources explaining why contemporary authors need to be active on social media, so I won’t go into those details here.
Rather, I’d like to share a social media strategy I’m currently developing, partly because I think it’s neat and hope somebody else might find it useful, and partly for accountability. As a writer, and in other areas of my life, I’m a big idea person–I get neat ideas and sometimes I go through with them. I think this is a neat idea, and would really like to follow through with it. Writing about it on here and promising to report back will maybe give me the motivation to actually… do that.
Today I googled….
The strategy is, essentially, to frequently share your recent, writing-related Google search queries. I got the idea after spending a good ten to twenty minutes on Google Street View trying to figure out where in Lochapoka, Alabama (a real place) would be a good spot to put Hicks Chicken Farms (a ficitonal place). Was I procrastigoogling? Maybe a little bit. But I also thought it was funny, and thought the small audience I was building for my author page on Facebook might find it funny as well.
And I was right. I posted it a couple of weeks ago, and I think it’s still one of my best-performing posts to date. Granted, my page is still extremely small, so even as one of my “best-performing posts to date,” it’s still only got 33 views and 19 engagements, but they’re all organic–that is, I didn’t pay Facebook to boost the post for me. And that feels pretty good for a page that still has under 40 followers.
So I think the strategy will be to share Google queries once a week on Tuesdays. That way, I can remind folks that a new episode will be up later in the week on Thursday–keep the fic fresh in their minds and build anticipation for a new episode release.
We’ll see how it works. I’ll try it out for all of October, and then do a bit of analysis and report back.
What about you? What’s your weirdest writing-related Google search to date? Do you share your weird writing queries with a social media audience? What are the responses like? Let me know in the comments!
What comes to mind when you think about the words writing and space? Maybe you think of the place where you typically write, be it an office, a kitchen table, a coffee shop, or even during an hour-long commute on public transit. Maybe you think of that 100,000-word Q/Picard slash fic you wrote but never posted.
Neither of those things is what I’m going to be talking
about today (sorry, shippers). Rather, I’m talking about how writing itself is inherently
spatial, and what that means for writing practices.
Language Made Material
In her 1996 book Writing Technologies, researcher Christina Haas wrote that “…writing is language made material” (p. 3). Material in this context just means that it takes up space in the world. If you write something down, it exists in the world in a concrete way, even if you write it on a screen. The words I’m writing now in this draft in Microsoft word currently take up a roughly 2-inch by 5-inch space on my laptop screen. To put it in slightly fancier terms, researchers Thierry Olive and Jean-Paul Passerault called this material existence a visuo-spatial trace.
The trace is different on a laptop screen than it is on other surfaces. Northanger Abbey, my favorite Jane Austen novel, looks different on my Kindle app than it does on my paperback copy. Hell, it looks different on my Kindle app depending on whether I’m using the iPad app or my Android phone app, and my Oxford University Press World Classics paperback edition looks different from the version printed in one of those giant Barnes and Noble Complete Works Of editions. The way the text takes up space in the world differs according to its material components.
2D vs. 3D Writing
There are a number of differences between reading and writing on a screen and reading and writing on paper. The one that interests me the most is the dimensionality of screens vs. paper. Screens present two dimensions—vertical and horizontal—and require scrolling if you surpass whatever the limits of those two dimensions are. On the other hand, printed works essentially exist in three dimensions, not because paper is especially t h i c c, but because it stacks rather than scrolls. Here’s an illustration from a job talk I gave back in 2018.
Now, I’m not here to tell you all about how screens are
ruining reading and writing practices and gripe about the kids these days and
to holler at you to get off my lawn. Absolutely not.
First of all, relationships between writing and technologies are more complex than that. And second of all, complaining about the kids these days with their newfangled reading and writing tech is about as old as writing is. If you think you’re mad about new writing tech, go read some Plato. In the Gorgias, he writes his mentor Socrates as the OG Chronicle of Higher Ed columnist here to complain about new writing tech—except he’s complaining about writing itself.
ANYWAY. [Steps down from soap box.] Why should you care?
Well, because while technology isn’t all-powerful, it’s not transparent either.
It can and does impact writing practices.
Text Sense and 3D Writing Spaces
Take for example a study from Writing Technology. In
the study—which was conducted before 1996, mind you—writers were asked about
the tools they used for their writing, and many of them reported that they did
all of their writing on computers. Except, when it came time to review
and revise their manuscripts, many of these same writers printed out their
manuscripts for this stage of the writing process.
When asked about why they printed out their manuscripts to
revise, many of them reported having a better “sense of the text,” or text
sense, as Christina Haas came to call it, with the printed version. Haas
explains that “text sense is a mental representation of the structure
and meaning of a writer’s own text,” (p. 118). In a way, the writers found that
they could know their own writing better when it was printed in three
dimensions rather than when they were scrolling through it in two.
Now, this study was discussed in a book published in 1996, which means that the study itself was likely conducted in the late 80s or early 90s. Many writing technologies look vastly different now than they did then. But—I, too, like these writers, often print out drafts of my writing when it comes time to revise, especially writing that is longer or that deals with more abstract concepts. When I’m writing longer fiction, I’ll sometimes print out to revise; when I’m writing academic articles, I always print out to revise. Even in 2019.
Get Off My Lawn! Just Kidding
Again, I’m not here to yell at the kids for using their mobile phones to read and write. I think it’s pretty great, actually. I’m just trying to spread the good word about what writing researchers know about how writing works. For one, I just think it’s cool stuff. And for two, the more you know about what you do, the more tools you have to try different things when you get stuck.
So what are your processes like? Do you write everything
on the computer? …Do you? Do you write first drafts by hand? Did you
write that 100,000-word Q/Picard fic on your phone? Let me know in the
Sources and Resources
Interested in this topic? Check out the pieces I cited in
What’s your favorite mythological creature? Unicorns are really popular right now, but dragons are a classic. Harry Potter fans might say hippogriffs or crumple-horned snorkacks.
Me? My favorite mythological creature is technology.
I’m kidding, of course, but the myths surrounding technology
are almost as big and pervasive as the myths surrounding unicorns and chimeras
and dragons—maybe even bigger. These myths pervade everyday discourse around
technology, and especially around communication technologies. They may even
seep into our beliefs about writing technologies. They may seem harmless, but if
we cling too tightly to these myths, they may impact our writing practices in
ways that aren’t so great.
And that’s why I’m here to BUST THOSE MYTHS because bustin’
makes me feel good.
Both of these myths are discussed in the 1996 book by Christina Haas called Writing Technology. Pick it up for a much more detailed busting of these myths—including actual empirical research! But for now, without further ado, let’s bust some myths!
Myth #1: Technology is transparent.
The myth that technology is transparent may not seem
pervasive in a culture that just loves to whine about how the kids can’t
write because they’re always twittering on their beep-boopers, using textspeak
and emojis in their school paper.
And yet, this myth does still operate in wider
cultural beliefs about technology today. This myth says that it doesn’t really
matter whether I use a notebook and pen or a computer to write—it won’t really
impact my writing practice that much, except maybe to make my writing faster
and more efficient.
But anyone who’s tried to have a complex conversation on
Twitter knows that writing technologies are not transparent—that they
do, in fact, impact writing practices. Different writers have approached
Twitter’s 280-character limit in different ways, but no matter the workaround,
the limits of the platform do impact how writers work. And I want to say here
that I’m not saying that you can’t have complex conversations or
talk about complicated subjects on Twitter; I’m saying that it impacts both how
you say what you say and the way in which you go about saying it.
Myth #2: Technology is all-powerful.
The other major myth surrounding technology may seem at first
blush to be the polar opposite of myth number one, but in fact it’s deeply
linked to it. Any time you’ve heard a technology called revolutionary,
or heard someone say (or said yourself) that such-and-such a technology is
going to drastically change how we do X, you’re operating under this
Christina Haas explains the myth’s relationship to writing
and literacy in this way: “New technologies for literacy are such a powerful
force that simply introducing them to writers will change literary acts in the
most profound of ways. […] This myth imbues computer technology with a number
of qualities, among them that computers are unique and that they are active,
independent agents of change,” (p. 35).
Haas wasn’t saying that technology doesn’t have impacts on the ways we write; in fact, her whole book was about some ways in which writing technologies do impact the ways we write. But the big issue with this myth is that it assigns too much agency to the technology itself—it sees the technology as deterministic, rather than as something created by people and therefore imbued with cultural attitudes and beliefs.
Even the example used in the first myth—that my computer is
such a powerful piece of writing technology that it will increase the speed
with which I produce writing—is bound up in attitudes about speed, production,
and efficiency. It assumes those are good things when it comes to writing—that
I want to write faster, that I want to write more; that these are inherently
good things, and that there is no downside to producing more writing faster.
If you’re struggling to see how producing more writing
faster could be a bad thing, that’s because those are deeply, deeply embedded
cultural values. But writing more and faster may not actually be the best
thing. Sometimes creative endeavors take time, and that’s that. Trying to rush
through them with faster, “more efficient” tech may not actually make for better
These myths are everywhere.
These myths about technology—specifically as they are
applied to writing—are everywhere in our culture! I can think of several
examples, mostly surrounding hopes or fears for student writing, but I want to
hear from you. What examples of these myths have you seen? Have you perhaps
said yourself? Let me know in the comments below!
Dungeons and Dragons. Given a current cultural context that has seen D&D references in shows like Stranger Things and Community, and an a recent explosion of actual-play podcast and shows like Critical Role and The Adventure Zone, Dungeons and Dragons hardly needs an introduction.
But what about when you’re stuck? When those moments of inspiration just don’t come? Here are six things Dungeons and Dragons taught me about combatting writer’s block. Let’s roll initiative.
Leveling up happens through regular, consistent play.
One of the fun parts of Dungeons & Dragons—or really, any game with leveling mechanics—is leveling up. Leveling up means that certain challenges become easier; a level one party facing a young green dragon is likely going to get burnt to a crisp, but a party at level ten? Piece of cake!
It’s not a perfect metaphor, of course. The Behemoth Blank Page doesn’t have hit points and a challenge rating. Writer’s block is a sly, ever-changing creature whose face may be different each time we see it. But, as with D&D, the more regularly you can manage to at least sit down at the (writing) table, the more strategies you have for defeating it.
But sometimes you roll with disadvantage.
One of the core mechanics of Dungeons and Dragons is dice rolls. Players describe a thing they want their characters to do to their Dungeon Master (DM), and the DM tells them what kind of a roll to make to see whether that thing happens. If the player rolls at or above a particular number, then the thing happens! Great! If the player rolls below that number, though, the roll fails, and usually, what happens is… not great. Sometimes, for whatever reason, a DM will ask a player to roll with disadvantage. That means they roll twice and take the lower of the two rolls. This increases the likelihood that the player fails the roll.
Sometimes, with writing, you’re rolling with disadvantage. One of the most memorable pieces of writing advice I have ever heard was at a panel at a sci-fi and fantasy convention where the topic was writing and mental health. One audience member asked how the panelists with depression managed to keep writing through a major depressive episode. And one of the panelists essentially said, “I didn’t.” Once he found the an antidepressant that worked for him, he was able to get into a productive writing routine, but during that depressive episode, no number of nifty tricks and tips could help him put words on a page.
And you know what? Sometimes that happens. And it sucks. Like, really sucks, and not just because it keeps you from writing. But it doesn’t make you a bad writer. Here’s a great, but longer series of posts from writer and Writing about Writing Facebook page admin Chris Breechen about the truth about writing routines that says a lot more about this issue than I have the space to say here .
Gather yourself a party.
Most D&D games consist of a smallish party of 3 – 6 people. Maybe some parties are bigger, and I’ve DMed sessions with only a single player. But the three main components of D&D—exploration, social interaction, and combat—are easiest when they’re done in a group. And believe it or not, the same goes for writing.
I have taught writing classes of various types for eight years. And I was a writing tutor for five years before that. If there’s one thing I know about writing, it’s that sharing it—scary as it may be—is one of your best tools for moving past writing difficulties, and that includes writer’s block. Even just talking through a scene with someone can help you shape it more firmly in your mind.
Whether you’re part of a formal writing group, or you join a site like Scribophile to trade works with other writers, or you just hand your writing off to a friend or family member for a quick read-through, finding a regular, trustworthy writing party can help you slice through that writing block like a +1 Luck Blade slicing through a Gelatinous Cube.
But learn your party members’ strengths, and be clear in what you ask of them.
Here’s the thing, though. One of the great things about Dungeons and Dragons is that each player’s character has their own strengths; on the flip side, each has their own weaknesses, too. And the same likely goes for your writing party.
Just like you wouldn’t ask your lawful-good paladin to use thieves’ tools to break into a locked treasure chest (that’s your rogue’s job), you don’t necessarily want to talk to your Plot Hole Detector when you’re staring down a Behemoth Blank Page. Now, if you’re actively trying to find those plot holes so you can fill them up—of course, call that Detector over. But for a Behemoth Blank Page, you likely want someone you can bounce ideas off instead.
Now, that’s not to say the same person can’t do both of those things, and that’s why it’s so important to clarify what you’re looking for when you’re asking someone to help you work through a writing difficulty. When you ask for help, be sure you ask precisely.
Rests are good….
In D&D, after several grueling rounds of combat, a party might elect to take a short or long rest to recover some or all of their hit points before they move to the next room in the dungeon. And if you’ve been staring at the same blank page for the last twenty minutes, maybe you do, too. Get up; stretch your legs; make some coffee or tea; meditate. Recover some hit points, and then try tackling that Behemoth Blank Page once more.
…in the proper environment.
In the wrong environment, though, a short rest can prove dangerous. If you don’t properly barricade that door, a wandering Bugbear may burst through and foil your attempt to regain that HP. And most writers know how easy it is for a five-minutes social media break to turn into a whole hour of scrolling. I’m not saying never use social media to break up your writing; I’m saying be honest with yourself about what kind of break will be most useful in any given moment.
What do you think? Do you play D&D? What other lessons does it have for writers? What about other TTRPGs? Let me know in the comments!
: The McElroys have described it as explicitly not an actual-play podcast, because their goal is not so much actual play as it is comedy and storytelling. But, still.
: Incidentally, as I was scrolling through the Facebook page trying to find that post, I also found a post he wrote titled, “9 Thinks Dungeons & Dragons Taught Me about How to Write.” I didn’t read it until after I wrote this post, but there’s a chance I saw the link on Facebook and it gave me the idea for this post. #nowriterisanisland
: Full disclosure: these classes have been of many types (first-year writing, tech writing, professional writing, digital writing, stem writing, etc), but not of the fiction writing type.
I’ve started this post twice already over the past year and change. I’ve been trying to write a post describing several major changes in my life, and I keep starting and not quite finishing.
There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is that some of these changes come with some heavy (negative) emotional baggage that I both do and don’t want to air out in pubic, so I err on the side of caution.
But on the flip side, the tiny optimist that’s still living somewhere inside me sees these changes as an opportunity and wants to talk about them and actively work to keep making them happen.
But back on the other flip side, talking about these changes and trying to make them work for me (by talking about them here on the blog) leaves me feeling vulnerable. What if I talk about what I want to do, what I want my life to be, what if I try to make these changes happen, and then they just… don’t?
But enough vagueblogging.
Here’s the footnotes version:
I got my Ph.D in 2016.
Then I got a two-year postdoc.
Then I went on the (absolutely excruciating) job market again and received precisely zero job offers.
My husband got an offer for a postdoc in Luxembourg. He took it, and we moved.
I continued to work as an adjunct and an online tutor.
This summer, I lost one of the adjunct gigs for the time being, and the other didn’t offer any fall work. SO:
I am a quasi-ex-academic currently without any adjunct work.
I have picked up a few semi-steady freelance writing and consulting gigs.
But otherwise, I have a bit more “free time” than I used to, thanks to this “quasi-ex” status.
I have been using this “free time” to write. Quite a bit.
And I remember how much I love it. I used to write a lot. Pretty much from the time I could use a pencil, I wrote things, and if I wasn’t writing things, I was reading them and thinking about writing things. I wrote poems, stories–I even wrote an entire YA novel one summer while I was in college about gender-bending royalty, my twist on ye fairy tales of olde about how gender roles are bogus. After I graduated college and spent a year splitting my time between retail and tutoring, I turned to television and movie scripts. But still, I wrote a lot .
Until I entered grad school in 2009. Then I was still writing a lot, but it was all academic stuff. I don’t think I wrote any fiction from that fall 2009 until the first full summer of my postdoc, right before I was set to enter the job market for a second time. Then I wrote, like a few chapters of a mystery novel and then stopped again until, basically, this year (2019).
For reference, that’s roughly a decade with hardly any fiction writing. Sheesh.
Sometimes I get really mad at myself for not trying to keep writing fiction while in grad school, because think of how much I could have written. I’d probably be published by now, right? Except then I get mad at academia for being so utterly exhausting that I didn’t have the time or energy to write fiction. It’s not that I didn’t have any hobbies while in grad school, just that it took up so much B R A I N that writing fiction barely ever crossed my mind.
But now I’m back at it! In the less-than-a-year since we moved to Luxembourg, I’ve written almost 40,000 words of a mystery novel, roughly sketched out a setting for another, written and started a handful of original short fiction pieces, two of which are currently in review at lit magazines (one for the third time–fingers crossed), and written almost 20,000 words of fanfic that I’m slowly letting out into the world bit by bit.
What if I could do that thing I’ve wanted to do for, like most of my life, could actually happen? What if I could be a writer?
I mean, I am. Like I said, I’ve written close to 100,000 words of fiction in the past nine months, and that’s nothing to say of the freelance writing, editing, and consulting I’ve done for actual money or the homebrew D&D adventures I’ve written. I am a writer–I am one who writes.
But the real question, of course, the one I’ve dismissed basically since failing to get into an MFA program the first time I applied to grad schools (and graduating college into a recession), is whether I could use writing to pay the bills.
Right now, the answer is decidedly, no. But I also happen to be in a different place financially than I was back when I first pivoted away from professional fiction writing. My husband makes enough to pay most of our bills, and my online tutoring gig makes me enough to pay the rest–and only takes up about 20 hours a week.
So here I go, trying to figure out how to make writing pay the bills. Fingers crossed!