BITTER MEDICINE Gets Pushed
Surprise! A second blog post from me in two weeks!
But yes, it's exactly what it says on the tin: Bitter Medicine's publishing date has been pushed back to March 14, 2023. Suffice it to say that I have a lot of emotions about this and I'm doing my very best to put a positive spin on it, but I was born a pessimist and learned how to be a realist and optimism grates on me, so it may be a while before I truly believe that the bright side is the bright side (in my personal relationship, I am the grumpy and the husband is the sunshine).
The reasons for the push are not mine to articulate in this blog post. What I would like to articulate are some of my feelings regarding the process, because what is a blog but a public processing of feelings? I'm upset, of course. I'm angry and frustrated and extremely disappointed. I'm not patient by nature. It's Aries season; I'm an Aries. I'm an Aries sun and an Aries moon and by the grace of god, I am not an Aries rising. Patience has never come naturally to me. Knowing that I have to wait a year from now before this book is out of my hands has a huge negative impact on me.
And patience is something you need in droves in publishing. The book is slated now for early 2023. I turned in my copy edits for it in late 2021. Publishing is a lot of silence, followed by a lot of scrambling, followed by more silence. But patience sometimes feels to me like swallowing food I haven't finished chewing, food that hurts going down and makes you wonder whether it'll get stuck in the esophagus.
I hope I have enough patience for the next year.
I said up above that optimism grates on me. Hope is a filthy liar, after all. But optimism is necessary in publishing as well, though I hesitate to call it optimism. There's nothing else ahead of you in this business but the next book. Nothing but your own words is within your control. I have another work in progress; I have multiple ideas sitting and marinating right now. Is it optimism to write the next book, or is it dogged determination? I don't have to write stories. I have other things I can do. But I made a decision to keep going and keep challenging myself, which is why there is a next book.
What the publishing delay does, however, is influence when this book can go to editors. (There's that patience again.) I believe in Key & Vale (most of the time). I want to get it out there, I want to stick the landing, I want it out of my hair, I want to move on to RED ENVELOPE HUSBAND. I've already queued up Netflix with Taiwanese dramas for research purposes. But with this delay, I have to reshuffle my timeline. I'm a life planner by nature. I usually have a plan for the next month, the next half year, the next year, the next five years. The fact that publishing is so wildly out of my control but has an outsized impact on my personal life gets me agitated. Agitated. And that's just one more thing I have to square as I go through processing what this delay means.
Earlier this year I was trying to learn how to let go, how not to have feelings about publishing. It's really not possible to be emotionless about it, and maybe I am trying to let go of the wrong things or trying not to have feelings about the wrong things. Maybe I should be learning how to not be a control freak, or talking to my therapist about potentially outsized reactions to things messing with a schedule I set, which is a result of childhood trauma. Whatever happens, all this shit is messy, the future is shifting, the ground is falling away from rock to sand, and all we can do is find new footing. Sometimes while crying.
The Texas Hold 'Em Structure
I went a small bit of viral over the weekend because of a Twitter post I made for modeling a novel on the game of Texas Hold 'Em. (Rules here: www.texasholdemonline.com/texas-holdem-rules/). Now, I've been prone to saying in the past that I think you can write using any structure, whether that's a structure found in literature or an actual physical structure, like a gas station (narrator POV stays rooted in time and place; characters come and go and have conflict with each other; time of day/customer rush determines where the climax is). By the way, I just made that one up, so if you decide to write a short story, novella, or even a novel based on this structure, do let me know how it works out. Is this a true narrative structure? Not really. Can I map one-to-one each gas pump in the station, the roof overhead, and the convenience store with each part of the story? I cannot. It's more of a gas station in spirit.
Anyway, I started thinking about Hold 'Em because one of my writer chats was talking about structure and 3-acts/Save the Cat, and someone suggested looking at kishoutenketsu, a Japanese 4-act structure (4-acts are also widespread among the other East Asian countries). And on the fly, I suggested writing a story according to the beats of a Texas Hold 'Em game.
This wasn't completely random: I want to steer non-Asians away from kishoutenketsu. Selfishly, or maybe not so selfishly because I know how easily theft occurs in the West, I want Asian authors to use that structure first. I want them to write stories that follow the beats they know so well. The surprise third-act antagonist, new arrival, or out-of-nowhere situation? Kishoutenketsu. So while thinking about Hold 'Em might have been random, wanting to show off already-extant examples of 4-act dramas in the West was not.
(I also enjoy exploring 2-act structures because I love musical theater and opera, and both are by necessity split in half because of intermission, unless there are two intermissions like in Parsifal or Der Rosenkavalier. The mid-point break and subsequent big change in status quo are among my favorite things. See also: the time skip between Naruto and Naruto Shippuden. Anyway, that's a different blog post.)
I started playing Hold 'Em in university, where one of my best friends would invite everyone to his house for poker nights and we'd all throw in twenty bucks, get ridiculously, wildly drunk, and try to outbluff each other on hands we all knew were utter shit (except that one time there was a four of a kind, and boy was I glad I had folded the second I saw my hand). I love the dramatic tension of a Hold 'Em game even through the haze of Southern Comfort (100 proof) and lukewarm Coke. Who at the table is the biggest bluffer? Who at the table plays cautiously and therefore is less likely to bluff? Who at the table is the agent of chaos? Who's the one trying to count cards? And who's the one addicted to pushing all in because their BAC is too high?
In case you missed the thread, here it is. And here's the Thread Reader App unroll.
The four-act structure of Hold 'Em allows for a lot of flexibility as far as character decision and writer herding skills are involved. As long as you hit each of the acts, things should go fine. There's conflict and drama built in because of that reversal of fortune and the consequences of character actions coming back to bite them in the ass. This structure would work very well for mysteries, thrillers, action-adventure, and heists especially. It's a structure designed to crank up tension nonstop until the very end. Think films like Ocean's 11, Inception, The Italian Job, which are all three-act films, if I remember correctly, but in a novel form can be made into four. In fact, you might need four just so you can get all the characters in. Introducing characters in a movie, with makeup and hair and costume design and set design and all that, is much easier than in a book. All that description!
I'm curious to see how well this structure works, so if you ever write a novel using this structure, please think of little ol' me and tell me about what you did. I'd love to see how well it maps to what you're planning.
PS: Once Bitter Medicine is released, I'll do an act breakdown. It's not a three-act but a two-act, and once I made that realization, the editing process came together.
In music, the term "ad libitum" means exactly what it says on the tin: do this freely; at your discretion; improvise. And if you're wondering where "ad lib" comes from, it's this term. This is how I have ended up structuring things here on this blog. I manage to write blog posts irregularly. I see my last post was from the end of August, though it doesn't feel that long ago to me.
I wanted to get more in depth on certain topics (by the way, "in depth" takes a hyphen when it directly modifies something else, like an in-depth look or an in-depth study, but is open when it is not modifying; did y'all know you'd be getting copyediting tips on this blog? Me neither.) like story structure and something I'm starting to call story kinesthetics or story physics, but I am still under several deadlines, and this is a procrastination exercise, so I'll keep it brief. Update-wise, BITTER MEDICINE is off on its copyediting journey and will hopefully return soon. I left mistakes in. This might come as a shock to people who know me, but I am not at a place where my time is so unclaimed that I can do a full copyedit on my book.
I did, however, hand a partially filled style sheet to my editor because I have fiddly language usage rules and I don't think a copyeditor would pick up on the pattern, as I myself have not been consistent in my use. That's how language works, really. I set rules in BITTER MEDICINE to mirror code-switching as best I could. Code-switching itself doesn't follow a strict rule set and is instead determined often by speaker comfort, situation, audience, etc. I live in a city where folks code-switch all the time, and it's fascinating to me when I am considered in and when I am considered out.
At any rate, October has been one deadline after another. I had planned to take November for NaNoWriMo and December to finish Key & Vale, the next manuscript (untitled, as most things are, so Key & Vale is the project name, the same way "temp agency" was the project name for BITTER MEDICINE), but October has seen fit to push rudely into November, which means no NaNo for me. I'll be catching up on slush reading, reading for crit, and finishing my draft of Key & Vale before the end of the year. I speak it aloud. I put it into the universe. So mote it be.
Next year should, barring something disastrous, be a better year for blogging. If I increase my output by 200%, that still means only eight posts instead of four. So I think I'm doing pretty well. But seeing as I have the memory of a squirrel (do I have the memory of a goldfish, or are stress and sleep deprivation having a negative impact on my ability to form short-term memories?), I want to put out ideas for blog topics in future, as the Brits say.
Here's the short list. It's short not because I have no ideas, but because my brain is empty.
A Li'l Sus
Much has been written about impostor (also imposter, but Merriam-Webster's first entry is impostor) syndrome and how creatives suffer from it. If this is a delicate topic for you, I suggest skipping this blogpost and coming back later because I have been tasked with writing about my impostor syndrome and, I'm not gonna lie, it gets gnarly in here.
It's been well documented that creatives get impostor syndrome, which is, in short, the idea that one does not belong in the peer group and has only gotten there by mistake. Neil Gaiman has written about it. There are probably a dozen Medium pieces on it right now. Most people talk about what they do to combat it. More on that later.
This is not going to be one those pieces.
My therapist has asked me to write about how impostor syndrome makes me feel when I'm experiencing it. First, if you're a writer, it's a pretty good idea to get a therapist. I don't know what it is about writing that hurts us so, but none of my other creative pursuits are a dagger to the heart the way writing is. I've shed tears over music; I've had impostor syndrome in music too. I mean, try playing in master classes. What are you doing up there? Who the hell knows. (I used to play in a band with an Indigo Girl and her daughter is in my son's class at school, and the only reasons I did not run screaming from that situation are that the other parents in the band were totally cool with it, and I had never really listened to the Indigo Girls. If she ever needs a session musician, you bet I will jump at the chance no matter how much I might fuck it up.)
I've had impostor syndrome in photography, especially when I've gotten praise for a photo that still, after years, does not match the vision I have for it in my brain. Funnily enough, I have not had impostor syndrome in babywearing, probably because I helped write the modern pedagogical method book (figuratively speaking) on it. At any rate, impostor syndrome for music and photography and editing can be acute, and instead of seeing the face of God, you definitely glimpse the face of despair, but I've gotten over it. I am who I am. Whatever. Most of the time.
Writing, though—here, I see the face of the devil.
There is something about the long labor of writing, the devotion required to sustain it, the way we return, over and over, to the tar pit of negative feelings and inadequacy, that makes it the worst for me. Full stop. I mentioned I've shed tears over music. I've cried because I've had streaks of bad lessons and months where nothing I did was correct. I've cried because I've practiced so much and still my body has not internalized what it's needed to, or because I've practiced so much on what my teacher told me to do one week, only to have her reverse course completely the next week, and now I've gone several steps backward in her eyes. I've cried over music and how it sounds and how that reflects on me, but my impostor syndrome in music has not made me question my ear or my artistic gut on what to do.
When I cry over writing, I'm really crying over myself.
I'm aware that impostor syndrome is about lies masquerading as truths. Or, as my friend Erin says, feelings masquerading as facts. Success in writing is no aegis against impostor syndrome. Would that I could cut off the head of Medusa, mount it on my shield, and brandish it against my impostor syndrome (or my Bad Brain) any time it shows up, turning it to stone. My impostor syndrome also has levels to it. At its best, it makes me think I can't hang with other more-famous writers, but if there's anything I can do, it's bullshit, so fake it till you make it, as they say.
At its worst, when it arrives, I feel like the drag of a concrete block against another concrete block, a slow abrading, a hollow growl. I feel like two extra-coarse pieces of sandpaper pushed and scraped against the other, the grit of them specially designed to remove every layer of varnish I've put on my failings. One part of me understands that I have a responsibility to this profession now, that I can't claim I'm not a writer because um? I have this book deal? and what am I doing this second if not writing this blogpost and using figurative language? And the other part of me is extremely afraid of wanting anything, afraid of claiming the title and prioritizing this work, because that's what real writers do and I'm not a real writer. I know that jinxes exist and if I speak my wants aloud, they're vulnerable, scraps of fluttering, gossamer hope that fall easily to predators. Best not to look at them directly or acknowledge them or let them out. You cannot have something taken away if you never have it.
When impostor syndrome collides with my wants, it causes dissonance of such magnificent, disgusting proportions that I spiral into the Bad Brain Place for days, accompanied by depression and anxiety. It upends any trust I have in myself. It turns everyone into a betrayer. It'd be one thing if it were confined just to me, but my impostor syndrome has splash damage. The friendly fire toggle is on. I want to be comforted, but I don't want someone to feel burdened with comfort; if I get validating words, I turn right around and invalidate them so I can keep validating my feelings; I throw a fishing line out and reel in praise that I use to make myself feel worse. It's unfair to everyone around me that I get, in video game terms, an emotional manipulation debuff that has an area of effect. I become an objectively nasty person, devoted to the holy task of ruining myself.
So I do my best to keep things quiet, knowing that this is a me problem and not an anyone else problem. I've learned through repeated touchings of the stove that if I take an invitation to speak more openly about how I feel, I'll be met with hostility or dismissiveness. Eventually it goes away, but impostor syndrome cycles back, so if people don't get a chance to take a whack at it, it'll be right back like one of those shows on cable, all thirteen seasons of it, syndicated forever.
There is, as far as I know, no cure for what ails me, no magic bullet, no panacea. I have tried to quit writing and failed at doing that. I have tried to keep my work private, but creativity is, as I have read in a recent newsletter, not done alone. (Additionally, if I share, I'm afraid I won't be able to stop. Is there anything worse than monopolizing someone's time?) I have tried thinking about my accomplishments. A horrible idea; if there's anything I hate, it's being told I have done something special, useful, fresh, "insightful," "dazzling," or any other empty book blurb language that exists, because I am none of those things and have done none of those things. I have tried not comparing myself to others, but I cannot fucking lie to me: I'm an Aries sun with an Aries moon, a wood Rat, a life path 1, an only child, a self-starter who gets what she wants by grace or grit. I'm highly competitive and if I'm not succeeding at the field I've chosen, why even bother?
The only thing that helps, if you can even call it help, is burying my head in work and kicking the can down the road, hoping that Future Me might be able to deal with this horseshit better than Present Me.
I wish there were some way of capping off this blogpost other than resorting to an Anderson Cooper–style "We'll have to leave it there." No pithy ending exists, not when I'm currently in the thick of it. Sometimes, in literature, especially Russian literature, a character's polar wants cause a break or a catastrophic event to happen, and that's what's going on in me right now: a catastrophe in triplicate, a desire to smash myself to pieces so I don't have to feel this anymore. I have writing to do, but more importantly, I have editing to do, a day job to do, a family to take care of, and no time to indulge myself in the selfish, frivolous, soul-devouring agony of writing even if I've considered quitting everything and letting my husband take on the financial burden of rent for the studio and writing full-time. I considered shaving my head and running away to the circus too, when I was sixteen. Guess what I haven't done.
The title of this is rather apt, seeing as I am sitting in the studio with a severe thunderstorm pouring Nature's wrath upon the Atlanta area. It's a Friday afternoon, which means I've had my advanced improvisation class for the day, and my brain is full of bits and pieces of music from the stuff I prepared as homework. Modulation is one of those things that is both simple and incredibly complicated at the same time, and when you ask someone to modulate into a new key instantly, but tell them they can't look at their hands or the keyboard and they have to play with beauty and nuance and also watch the class at the same time . . .
Anyway, I digress. Today's post has been brewing for a while, and it's on the topic of pantsing, or discovery writing, as some people call it. Writers are loosely broken into two categories, pantsing (writing by the seat of one's pants) or plotting, and writerly opinions litter the landscape between these two ends of the spectrum. It's not a binary, folks! Is anything really a binary?
As a longtime denizen of online writing spaces, I've seen many people extol the virtues of plotting. After all, when we intend to go somewhere, we do map our route. Plotting has plenty of benefits, but it's only one method to get where you're going. Pantsing, discovery writing, or, as I'm going to call it here, improvisation, is sometimes seen as sloppy and unorganized and a deeply flawed way to write a book. I've seen it referred to in a dismissive manner, as if a person can't conjure a good book out of thin air. But that's not true.
Let me back up a bit.
I think that for many non-musicians out there, and quite a few classically trained musicians, improvisation is one of those things that's miraculous. How else but through sheer genius and talent can one sit at the piano, or take up the instrument, and have something cohesive and amazing come out? But that's not how it works for many, many people. Improvisation is something we have to practice. Yeah, I said it, and this is not new to those who are already in jazz. Improv takes practice.
To improvise, you have to understand your boundaries. Let's say you're playing a standard tune with your combo. You've run through the first iteration of the tune, and now it's time for the band to improvise. If you've ever gone to a jazz club, you understand: Every song has structure, and every person who improvises within that song follows that structure. The lead is going to go first; they're gonna get, oh, sixteen bars to improvise. Then the next instrument takes it up. So, for example, the trumpet improvises first, then the sax, then the piano, then the bassist, and finally, the drummer.
Within that improvisation, each instrumentalist has an understanding of the harmonic structure of the tune, as well as all the notes that mesh with the harmonies. Already the instrumentalist has a limited number of notes to pick from. And then the instrumentalist relies on the technical exercises—scales, arpeggios, etc.—as foundations on which to create the improvisation. We go from practiced pattern to practiced pattern, filling in the connective parts. In other words, we have a bunch of Lego blocks at our disposal and we stack them on each other in a certain amount of time, and ta-da! That's our improv. And we hand off the baton.
How does this tie into pantsing? Pantsing is never done by pulling something out of thin air. Pantsers build upon those story elements they already know: character, setting, conflict, plot. Maybe the characters aren't all the way fleshed out. Maybe the setting given is only a single room in a house. Maybe there is no conflict and no plot. But there is always a seed, a starting point that we, as consumers of stories, have within us. And pantsers want to know what happens next, so they start exploring in those directions with the tacit understanding that there will be conflict, there will be plot, and maybe, when they get stuck, they'll take the Jason Mendoza method and throw a Molotov cocktail, thus creating a wholly different problem.
What I'm saying is that pantsers are improvisers who have at their disposal a wealth of information they can use at any time to help construct the story. We've all been exposed to stories, even the ones that continue building on themselves (think about oral storytelling methods, where the storyteller takes suggestions from those around the fire). Think about how TV shows and movies are put into strong three-act structures. Think about the conflict created between people who want each other, but whose overall goal is to be somewhere that doesn't involve that person (high school sweethearts who want to get married, but whose jobs are on the opposite sides of the country). Pantsers have these Lego blocks available and select the ones they feel will be best. It's not as frenzied as it seems, even if it might feel that way when the writing is flowing.
I'm a pantser, actually—I like to through-compose my drafts, to pull in some more musical terminology. Through-composing means (as simply as I can define it) to write new music for each section and structure things in a way that makes it impossible to exchange those sections. But I never start writing without knowing my ending. And that's something a successful pantser will work with: boundaries. My boundaries are the opening image and the closing image, and I fill in everything in between with the understanding that there will be a set piece, there will be rising action, there will be a climax, and so on so forth. What I don't know is how they'll fit together, or if a character will grab the reins and run off and make the story about them.
But part of pantsing for me, too, is sitting on that story egg and incubating it. I'm a slow-cooker writer. I get an idea and I let it percolate for years. I have to know these characters and how they interact and how they're going to make each other miserable or happy. BITTER MEDICINE took over four years to come to fruition. My next project, called Key and Vale for now, has been in development for over three years. This year's NaNoWriMo zero draft project is named Syren and has been baking for several years as well. And next year's Real Draft is RED ENVELOPE HUSBAND, the zero draft of which I wrote during NaNoWriMo 2019.
I often pants these zero drafts . . . and then do not use the material when I write the first draft. This happened with Key and Vale (NaNoWriMo 2018) and the BITTER MEDICINE zero draft (2015-2016?). And I will pants that first draft, too, all because the preparatory work has been done by writing the zero draft. Each successive draft gets tighter because I don't pants my edit process, and there does come a time where you have to stop pantsing and nail down your story elements, but even when I'm in edits, I write with a goal abstract enough ("make the reader feel sorry for this character") to give me enough room to improvise. Because that's just how I function.
So, pantsers, embrace it: you are improvisers, you are miracle workers, you are repositories of information. You are everything you learned and everything you love and your writing process is a wonderful chaos crucible, a cauldron of delight, the product of which you're excited to read.
What comes next?
Mia is a musician, teacher, writer, editor, and occasional photographer whose formal education is in music, psychology, and pedagogy. She enjoys reading a lot, thinking while on long drives, finding songs for each moment, and snoozing with her cat.