Back to Where It Began

Replaying on my XBOne means screenshots! Finally!

In many ways, my life started over in the spring of 2011.

I was three years out of an emotionally abusive relationship that left me questioning my worth, abilities, talents… everything. I was two years out from finishing my MFA, and the two years of that program, while amazing, were intensive and overwhelming and left me feeling burned out creatively. I was one year out from having purchased my XBox 360, and starting to rediscover my love of gaming. And it was that spring I was loaned a copy of BioWare’s Mass Effect.

Mass Effect engaged me in a way Halo and Left4Dead had not. While I loved the world and character of Halo, and quickly learned what it was to be in fandom again, the storytelling, characters, and world of Mass Effect engaged me completely. That particular semester, I had an end of day study hall duty that happened to be comprised mostly of gamers. We had great discussions about gaming, and at one point, a student, knowing my love of fantasy, suggested I’d like Dragon Age, since it had a lot of the same elements as Mass Effect. So I borrowed it. And it was just medieval Mass Effect.

Except… NOPE. It was so much more.

Alistair, Fianna, Morrigan, and Cat the Dog

In very little time I was fully immersed in the Blight-stricken land of Ferelden, and terms such as “The Maker”, “Ostagar”, “Orzammar”, “Circle of Magi”, “Andraste”, and “Tevinter” (eventually the most important of those!) became familiar. I fell into the plight of Ferelden and got to know Fianna Cousland, my Grey Warden, better than any character I’d ever worked with before. Her romance with Alistair (the first time I ever played) happened slowly, but also suddenly. It came unexpectedly, as did the relationships she forged with her companions. I was shocked when Zevran betrayed her in a back alley later in the game because I didn’t understand approval ratings. I struggled through the endlessness that was the Fade because I didn’t yet understand BioWare’s penchant for puzzles. I slogged through the Deep Roads because I didn’t yet know how much BioWare loves tormenting us (it’s okay, BioWare, I still love you).

I initially told Morrigan no way in the void was she going to sleep with Alistair. And then watched Riordan fall from Fort Drakon and realized Alistair or Fianna would have to kill the Archdemon, and reset to an earlier save.

In subsequent playthroughs I learned more about the mechanics and how to spec characters and build rapport so my team stuck with me. But a funny thing happened. I’d been so burned out creatively, but Dragon Age woke something up in me. These realized characters in this amazing world with its deep lore fascinated me so much, that I wanted to write about them. I hadn’t wanted to write in years, and, having received my MFA, figured if I did ever write again, it would have to be serious original fiction.

Fuck that. I wrote my first Dragon Age fic, “Beautiful Prison”, in June of 2011. It was a short bit about Alistair waiting to be recruited by Duncan. He tells your Warden the story in conversation, but I wanted to see the scene through his eyes, feel the tension in his mind.

Writing that piece felt like waking up to a new world. Possibly coming out of Uthenera, to use another DA word from their Dalish Elvehn culture. The words didn’t stop flowing. I needed an outlet and found a Facebook group dedicated to Alistair. I started finding friends to talk about DA with. I started crafting Dragon Age-themed things: from painting canvas shoes, to a fun little alphabet scrapbook, to my first ever cosplay, for PAX East 2012, where I got to meet the Dragon Age creative team. I met my best friend, who invited me to play D&D with her family and some friends.

So dragon. Much age. Wow.

A lot of people may scoff at the idea that a video game could change my life, especially when I was already in my thirties when I stumbled up on it. But through Dragon Age I branched out. I found a new friend group. Luna (BFF) invited me to her group’s annual Christmas party, where I met extended friends who weren’t in our D&D campaign. It felt nice to branch out and be creative. It felt nice to be social in different ways (though I totally loved my cats and my apartment, and did really enjoy going out with my work friends). But at that party, in walked my husband.

He wasn’t my husband then. Of course. Bard was one of the first to arrive after me. He was tall with dark hair and wide brown eyes and an adorable smile. We hit it off immediately and spent the next week chatting on Facebook. By March we were dating. By that July, 2012, we were engaged. By July 2013, we were married. In that time I kept writing, producing DA fanfic and articles for a DA fan site. I kept learning new cosplay skills and developing new D&D characters. Luna and I hung out a lot, and how cool was it that I got to move down the street from my best friend?

Much has happened in those intervening years: several PAX Easts are in the book, I have a sprawling Dragon Age headcanon with a huge series of fanfiction following my Inquisitor (Inqusition’s 2014 release changed even more!). I live down the street from Luna, and have made more friends through DA. I’ve tapered off my cosplaying some, but retain the skills I learned through sewing for it. Oh, I have a kid! In 2015 Bard and I welcomed our Smol Human. He started kindergarten this month.

And I’m still writing. In 2018 I got the confidence to try writing original again, taking inspiration from Dragon Age, Skyrim, and other games. I’m working on my series and loving it. Though I don’t always have a lot of time to work on it, I’m not overwhelmed or feeling disappointed or burned out by it. I’m creating again, I’m working with fantastic authors, and I feel alive in a way I didn’t before picking up Dragon Age: Origins in 2011.

I feel ya, Fianna. 2020’s been like that.

Earlier this month, BioWare released a teaser trailer confirming work on DA4 and the fandom went wild. It’s been six years since Inquisition, and to finally have more news (than just Solas’s voiceover with a graphic) sent us into an uproar. With that, I decided it was high time I booted up Origins once again and revisited Ferelden. Bard asked me if I’d play a different character and make different choices this time.

I see the appeal. But I wanted that feeling of coming home, of the Blight bringing people together, of waking up after a long sleep and coming to life again. I wanted to go back to where it started. Back not just to Origins, but the origin of where the last nearly 10 years have brought me, and that means playing Fianna’s story.

It felt good.

Like coming home.

Building a World? This May Help!

Background photo created by bedneyimages – www.freepik.com

I’ve been at work on the Ungifted series since early 2018. In that time Sneakthief has gone through four drafts (I’m on the fifth) and I have three drafts of Turncoat and lots of ideas for the next two books. But one thing I’d never done was organize all my thoughts about the world. I’d never really built it.

In a sense, I felt like I was discovering a lot as I went, which is kind of the hallmark of a pantser, and I make no secret that I’m a pantser to the highest degree. That worked for general plot, and for the characters, as I got to know them, but didn’t work so well for actually building my world and making it a unique place. The problem I found was that I couldn’t settle on an organizational system.

I have friends who swear by Scrivener. I tried Scriv, and its free counterpart Y Writer, when I was using a primarily Windows-based PC laptop. I just couldn’t seem to figure it out, or make it work for me the way I needed it to. I have friends to use Excel or Google Sheets (and my husband swears by Excel. You could say he excels at it. I’ll see myself out). I got a small binder with dividers and pages, and tried organizing it that way. Helpful, but still not what I needed. Maybe I’d just keep it all in my head and hope for the best.

I was fortunate to receive some amazing beta feedback that told me exactly what I needed to hear, and why it was important to not try to keep track of it all in my head. Around the same time I was fortunate to be getting Facebook ads for Scribe Forge’s Essential Worldbuilding Blueprint and Workbook.

The Essential Worldbuilding Blueprint and Workbook was exactly what I needed to answer the questions my beta reader had posed and the advice they’d given me. The first section of the book discusses the different elements of worlds and worldbuilding, and things that must be considered when doing so. It’s structured to work for most speculative genres, including high fantasy, sci-fi, and urban fantasy. It covers everything from how to develop a planet, down to the legal systems of your world. And the best part is, you can pick and choose what works for you. What do you need to develop?

This is where part two comes in: an extensive collection of worksheets that ask the questions I didn’t even consider, or thought might have obvious answers, but didn’t. Again, you can use the worksheets that you need for your particular project. I spent quite a bit of time going through the worksheet section and filling in the gaps of my world, down to means of production, travel, and trade. And again, the aim of the worksheets isn’t for you to complete everything, but to do what you need for your project.

“But Jay, if you did the worksheets, aren’t you going to have to buy a whole other book when your next project comes up?”

Scribe Forge offers the hard copy book, or digital download, or a combo of the two. In this way you have the ability to work with fresh worksheets for new projects. I personally need to physically write stuff out, and I don’t have printer capabilities right now, so having the book was really helpful. But, I have the digital copy in case I want to find a way to print up fresh sheets. I’m a fan of options, and I’m glad that Scribe Forge had them! Additionally, there was a disclaimer that it could take up to 4-6 weeks to ship, however I think I had my hard copy in a week and a half or so. The digital piece was ready at the time of purchase, however, which was great!

Overall, for me, building my world required having the right tools, and it took me some time to figure out what that meant. In the end, it took Scribe Forge’s product to help me organize the information my beta reader recommended I include. It may not be for everyone, but if you’ve been working on worldbuilding and struggling with where to start, or finding a system to organize your thoughts or even force you to dig deeper into your world, I’d recommend this.

This post is not sponsored by Scribe Forge in any way; I have just really enjoyed using their product and felt it to be extremely helpful, and want to pass on why it’s worked for me.

What’s Going On?

Did you sing it in your head, too?

So I didn’t wake up this morning and go outside; I took some deep breaths, but didn’t get real high… but I thought I’d just take some time to say what’s going on in these parts!

Between COVID-19 and the the hard work that’s been going on for Black Lives Matter, there’s a lot that’s going on in the world. Our state has mostly opened up; life is starting to look simultaneously the same but very different. I’ve been spending more time educating myself on racism, listening to and reading Black voices, and looking at what I can and should be doing in myself and in my community to promote equality and squash racism.

I’ve been teaching two classes on top of my full-time day job; one of them is creative writing, and I’ve taken a very different approach to how it had previously been taught. It’s been really eye-opening and my students have impressed me with how eager they are to push outside of their comfort zone and learn to trust themselves and the process. I’m teaching it again come summer term, so I’m working on updating the class to be taught in 10 weeks, rather than 12.

Sneakthief is now with my beta team! I’m hoping just one more pass before I send it to my editor at SKOLION. I should be diving into edits on Turncoat, but that’s stalled a bit–which is fine! I’m kind of picking away at another Dragon Age fic that I started a while back, and my GreedFall fic needs updating and finishing; I’m about 2/3 through that one.

I commissioned a render of Nicholas!

Nicholas Alcyon – 3d render by Verfallen-02

And with that, I’ve learned about artbreeder.com, where you can merge images to create portraits! By combining many features, you can create portraits… and I have created my whole cast. Oops. I’m thinking of starting to post the images and short character bios in the Ungifted section of the site!

I’m enrolled in Mark Dawson’s Ads for Authors course, and am hoping to up my promotion game and improve my platform starting this summer. I mean, I know it’s summer as of today, but yeah. I want to finish up my work with my classes, organize myself a bit better, and then figure out my aims and what’s realistic for me.

I know newsletters are a good way to do things; if I were to do a newsletter, what might people like to see? I’m thinking just once a month, and providing content that my audience might enjoy. Drop a comment to let me know what sounds good!

Finally, I got a simple Kindle e-reader; Smol Human gets the Fire, and now I have a device just for reading–it’s great since I get easily distracted. I finished Yolandie Horak’s A Study of Ash and Smoke, and was blown away by how GOOD it is. You can read my Goodreads review here.

So that’s what’s going on in my corner of the world… what’s been occupying your time?

Coming to Life

As an author, I constantly have images going through my mind: what my characters look like, how my world looks, how my characters look in that world… you get the idea. Mental images are cobbled together from the many references I’ve stored up in my mind over the years. For settings, that’s not really an issue. But for characters, it’s another story (no pun intended)

Sneakthief started with a character: the Sneakthief. I had a vague idea of him: his role, his talents, etc. It literally came from playing a sneaky archer thief in Skyrim (I know I know… but is there any other way to play?) and a guard said, “Hands to yourself, sneakthief.” And it all began to spiral from there.

Once I had the general idea of the character, more started falling into place: his background, his place in the world, his relationships, his desires, his fears, his looks.

Theodore Tolliver has lived in my head for over two years now, and I’ve always been able to generally describe him. I’ve had to, since I’m writing his stories! But I’m not an artist, and lack the abilities to craft a visual representation of the character.

Enter Verfallen. Also known as Schattenriss on Archive of Our Own, Verfallen is a talented author, as well as super talented with Photoshop and most recently, Daz 3D. He opened up a Ko-fi this week and has commissions open, so how could I pass up the opportunity to bring Theodore Tolliver, my Sneakthief, to life?

Theo, as he appears in Sneakthief. A little roguish, a little younger, longer hair, just doing the best he can.

And then:

Theo in Turncoat. He’s seen some shit by this point, chopped a lot of his hair off (though not all… but I saw a model of him with no hair and he looked pretty good, so we’ll see what happens!) He’s had enough of being controlled, and he’s about to start fighting back.

I can’t really explain what it’s like to see my character come to life like this. He’s not just a description anymore. And when I write him, I’ll have an even clearer picture of what he looks like in mind.

If you’re looking to get a render of your character(s), I really can’t say enough about working with Verfallen. He’s put a lot of time into getting models and renders of his own character, Kai, down perfectly, so he understands what it’s like to want to see your beloved character come to life.

And now back to editing!

Perspective

As with all great events of the modern age, when it all started, so did the memes. The reminders that Shakespeare used his plague-induced isolation to write King Lear. And that Isaac Newton spent his own quarantine time creating calculus (I still haven’t forgiven him). The implication was clear: you’re isolated, you’re home, you finally have the time to do that great Something you could do if only you had the time and space. And then there was the one that was less subtle and basically said that if you don’t emerge from this with a new skill, side hustle, or knowledge, it’s not because you lacked time, but discipline.

At first I handled this all pretty well. I figured yeah, I’m home more, I’ll be better about keeping up with housework. I can’t go out anywhere, so I’ll get more work done and read more books. Maybe it won’t be so bad.

I hit a breaking point yesterday morning. Smol Human has this thing where he falls asleep, and then wakes up around 1:30 or 2am bawling and won’t go back to sleep unless I go with him. I’m also still working my normal hours, just at home, and Smol Human is home with me. While I’m fortunate to have a position where I can make this work, it’s just not sustainable in the long run. It all hit me hard after nights of broken sleep and early mornings of being climbed over and nudged and asked to get up over and over again. It hit me after days of feeling overwhelmed by how to be mom in addition to my job.

Even when things were normal I’d try to be more understanding and kinder to myself and say that I couldn’t do it all. IF I can’t do it all even under good circumstances, what makes me think I can do it all under these?

Because even in the midst of this crazy fucked up trauma (yes, this is all very traumatic) the mentality of do more and more and more and if you’re not you’re a lazy failure persists. It persists more because things have shifted. Shakespeare wasn’t balancing writing while his autistic preschooler begged him to go outside, even though it’s pouring out. And Isaac Newton? Not inventing calculus in the middle of a Zoom, while his kid is chasing one cat around the house and the other is horking up a hairball on the rug. Shakespeare’s job was writing plays. Newton’s job was studying math and science. They were doing their jobs during the plague.

The world has changed, and we need to be kind to ourselves as we try to navigate it. At the start I thought I’d read a bit more and be a more efficient editor of my manuscript, or that I’d get more crafting done. I’ve done about the same amount of all of those as I would have done if I wasn’t sheltering at home. Because even when I am done work, and I do have the time, my mind is tired. It’s not necessarily a lack of discipline as I’m just tired. It’s been a wild ride so far, and it gets tiring holding on by a thread. Holding so hard it hurts. Holding so hard that when you get distracted from holding, you snap.

So be kind to yourselves. Be understanding. Be realistic. Stay healthy, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally.

You’d Never Know

It’s… strange how much things have slowed down, even while they’re moving frantically. It suddenly seems like there’s time for all the things there weren’t time for before.

While today isn’t warm, it’s a gorgeous, sunny day out. I went for a drive with the Smol Human (just a drive–no stops. He likes just riding and taking it all in). So many people were out walking. Families were doing yard work together. When we got home, there wasn’t pressure to get in and start getting things done to get ready for next week because… well, next week isn’t the usual.

We went for a walk up the street. The sky is so blue it’s almost unreal. You’d never know that we’re expecting six inches of snow tomorrow (yay spring in New England!), or that the plague of the 21st century is sweeping through around us. No confirmed or even suspected cases in my county, let alone my city. We stayed out in the sun for a good hour.

I try to remember the last time I felt this, and I can’t. It’s like there’s permission for people to slow down, to think more, to focus on more than just producing. I see the meme about Shakespeare using the plague to write King Lear, and while certainly there will be more time to devote to hobbies and such, why do we have to produce more, in other ways? Nothing wrong with it if you do–sometimes it takes this enforced time to kickstart a project! But there shouldn’t be anything wrong with it if you don’t want to launch into something like this, either.

There’s a shift in thinking, and my hope is that this shift is permanent. That we don’t go back to the way things were “before”. That we’ve seen the value of art and beauty and music, and in time with loved ones and consciously considering those around us. That we like not hustling every minute of the day, and that this Puritanical holdover that we must be busy, must not be idle, must constantly be something other than just being, can slip away.

I’m definitely coming from a place of privilege with this, and I know there are many struggling. So my hope is that we can help our fellow people. We can get over this concept of struggling as a moral failing, and realize that helping people is just that: helping. I saw another meme that mentioned something along the lines of it took a plague to make humanity more, you know, humane.

Let’s remember this. Let’s not wake up at this time next year back where we started from, where you’d never know that a sweeping pandemic rushed in and forced us to start being human again.

Rule 18: Enjoy the little things

Blog of the Plague Year

3/18/2020

When I used to teach Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe, I’d include a rousing game of Pandemic (the old version) after we read it. The class would choose a disease type, symptoms, and then sit on the edge of their seats watching for it to take hold in the world. We’d watch the planes stop, watch the ships aimlessly move around due to closed ports, and groan when we didn’t manage to get Madagascar infected.

I didn’t think I’d ever live in Pandemic. I know the disease type; I know the symptoms. And now I watch as it takes hold. I hear news of closing borders (looking at you, US and Canada, and don’t think I forgot how The Handmaid’s Tale started). Orders to shelter in place, to social distance, to close businesses. We just got the remote work order last night.

I’m down to my last two antidepressant pills and it says I need doctor’s authorization to refill it. When we talk about pandemics and plagues and the zombie apocalypse we don’t really consider what it would be like to be off meds. Everyone would be raiding Walgreens for the antibiotics and stuff to treat infections in a zombie-infested world. I’d be digging for the Lexapro.

I’m trying to set up something to work on basics with Smol Human until his Google Classroom is up and running, and to maintain a sense of routine. It’s only day 2 of being off his routine, but I think it’s going to get harder for him (and for us). We’re fortunate to have a village, but he’s still a handful and needs to get out his energy. Today we ran around in circles. He asked me, “Want to run around in circles?” so that’s what we did. We also spent over an hour drawing houses with windows. He kept asking for house numbers that aren’t part of his usuals (ours, his grandparents’, our friends, etc), and I’m wondering if these are the house numbers he sees when the school bus brings him to his special needs program.

I took today as a vacation day, thinking perhaps we’d still be opened, so I’ll start remote work tomorrow. At least my parents will have the Smol Human for a couple days, so that should make it easier for me to come up with a routine and make a space for myself to work at home.

There’s plenty I can do around here; I’m not worried about that! It’s just making myself do it, and balancing Smol Human’s needs. Once I settle into something, I think we’ll be alright. It’s just the beginning. We’re all trying to figure it out.

Since my parents will have him for a couple of nights, husband and I are going to watch Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead. He hasn’t seen either. No time like the present to expose him!

So, not very much substance, and a lot of jumbled thoughts again; but when he was researching for Plague Year, Defoe read the letters and accounts of survivors from the 1665 plague that hit London. Those informed him as he saw a potential outbreak looming in the early 1700s. Ideally this won’t last a year. But regardless of how long it lasts, this is history happening, so keeping a record of how we handled it (beyond the memes, of course) is good.

I don’t know that I’ll write this stuff every day, especially as the days begin to blend and the new normal becomes just plain normal. But for now, this is what’s going on. How are you handling things?

Obligatory Plague Post

Ten years ago, zombie fiction was all the rage. Ten years ago, I read World War Z, The Zombie Survival Guide, and Day by Day Armageddon with gusto. I taught a whole unit in my English classes on plague stuff: we read excerpts of Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, followed up by the contemporary novel, Day by Day Armageddon, then compared them. We played Pandemic on the big screen, and competed between classes. The Walking Dead became a thing. Zombieland poked fun at the genre.

What a time to be alive.

Or undead.

Over the last few years apocalyptic literature has waned, and dystopian literature seems to be more popular. And then we have right now, in which we’re living in a dystopia, while a pandemic approaches.

In some ways it’s surreal. Right now it’s business as usual at my workplace, but we do a lot remote anyway. Of the four schools in the state’s university system, we’re the only non-residential school, and most of our classes are online. Face to face classes are one night a week.

But today we did get word from our recruitment coordinator that our outreach events for the next two weeks are canceled. We’re being asked to be ready to work remote if necessary. And this afternoon (after doing a two-day outreach event), I got a call that the Smol Human’s school district is canceling for the next two weeks.

Again, quite surreal, and takes me back to the books I used to read and teach. While we have a very limited occurrence of COVID-19 in my area, I think these precautions are to keep things from having the opportunity to become more widespread.

Our area doesn’t have the bodies in the streets, deployed military, and everything-is-a-weapon mentality of the apocalyptic literature, or even of Journal of the Plague Year, but even proactive measures throw into glaring relief the issues that… wait for it… plague our society. As it gets worse, we can’t afford to have people going out. And so many people can’t afford not to.

I went to my local grocery store today, and the last time I saw shelves that bare was when they predicted a nor’easter (we New Englanders and our snow). And it’s true, there really isn’t any TP anywhere. I did plan to do a big shop and meal prep this weekend anyway, as the prepped meals in our chest freezer are starting to dwindle, and I wanted to restock, but at the same time I didn’t want to look like I was feeding into the hysteria. Though… is it really hysteria?

I’m not quite sure where I’m going with any of this, but it just felt right to get some thoughts down. I suppose being cautious and proactive will be the best bet with everything.

How are you faring? How are you preparing? Are we too worried, or not worried enough?

Out of the Comfort Zone

Some years just stand out as being big years: transformative years, that mold you and shape you. 2001 was one such year: I went through what was, at the time, a traumatic break-up; I made the choice to live on campus over the summer, and work for a publishing company (it was data entry for EBSCO, so no visions of glamorous publishing internships in Boston, plz). 9/11 was months on the horizon. And in between working and figuring out who I was and what I wanted, I decided to go skydiving.

It was something I’d always wanted to do, and when the opportunity presented itself, I eagerly accepted. I won’t go into the whole day (which I remember so clearly). What’s important here is when I finally got up in the plane. I was doing a tandem jump. They’d assured us that if we got to the drop zone and didn’t want to jump, we didn’t have to. Everyone ahead of me slid up the bench to the doors. We slid up until I was staring into nothing but sky. My pro asked, “Are you ready?”

In that moment I could hold back. I could stay in a perfectly good airplane that would set me safely back on solid ground. I’d never know what clouds tasted like. There would be no refunds. I stared out at the infinite sky above and all around, and the ground, 14,000 feet below. “I’m ready.”

It still ranks as one of the best things I’ve ever done.

This weekend I had another ready moment. While it’s not quite as sweeping as jumping out of an airplane, it’s still a huge leap outside of my comfort zone and the next step of what has been a very transformative couple of years for me. This weekend I pressed ‘send’ on the first group of chapters for Sneakthief’s beta team.

And today I got back a first round of feedback, and I have to say, it’s all WONDERFUL. It doesn’t make me feel daunted, and afraid of going back. I’ve put a lot of work into the writing and rewriting, and feedback is only going to make it better. I’m super excited to delve into the next round of edits based on feedback… and this is just from one person.

That jump in 2001 showed me that I could do it. That risks were worth taking, and I was strong enough to take them. I took a huge leap of faith in 2019, and it turned into more than I could have expected, and it’s empowered me to do what I’ve always wanted to do, and publish a book. And with all the help I’m getting, it’s going to be a good book.

Maybe pressing ‘send’ isn’t jumping out of a plane, but it’s out of my comfort zone, and instead of being nervous or wracked with anxiety that makes me sick, I’m excited, because it can only improve my work. And that’s so worth it.

rEaL wRiTeRs

rEaL wRiTeRs

First off, a confession: I’ve never seen a full episode of Spongebob Squarepants. It came out at that strange time of my life when I had just started college, and we didn’t have cable TV, let alone streaming (it was the dark times, the old times). But I’m familiar enough with it, and feel like I speak memes and gifs as another language. Still, if I don’t know the exact source material, does that make me a real fan of the meme?

Okay, so that was a bit of a stretch to get into this. But I’ve been thinking a lot about what it is to be a Real Writer. A real anything, really. Thinking back to Pinocchio, what did it mean for him to be a real boy? When he could talk, he wasn’t real; when he had no strings, he wasn’t real… what did that weird Blue Fairy do to make him Real? For the Velveteen Rabbit, only true love made it real, and it was Real only after it had been rubbed raw, hugged to pieces, stuffing coming out of burst seams. So it seems like there’s definitely something to say about experience (and not all of it pleasant) feeding into being this idea of Real.

The other night I found a tweet from someone who’d joined an area writers’ group. This was her tweet

Fifteen thousand words a month. Anything less than that means you’re not a real writer. You don’t take it seriously enough. If you can’t crunch out fifteen thousand words each month, you’re not a real writer and are unwelcome among this group of writerly paragons. I’ve done NaNoWriMo in years past, and that’s 50,000 words, but that’s one month, and those haven’t been the healthiest months to be honest. A lot of people plan very carefully to get those fifty thousand down. They clear schedules, make outlines, do sprints, set daily goals. And in non-NaNoWri-Mos, they probably do similar things, but at such a pace that’s more sustainable. The years I successfully completed NaNoWriMo were years when I was teaching, and when you’re teaching, November is full of days off that I totally used to maximize my word vomit. But those were the years I was single with cats. My time was my own to do with what I pleased, and I was pleased to stay up til all hours writing a novel.

I spent a lot of years wondering what it meant to be a real writer. I always enjoyed writing, and it was always a big part of me. When I finished college and came home I discovered the myriad ways the internet could connect me with fandom. I discovered fanfiction. I wrote fanfiction. It was an outlet with zero pressure.

But it also had a fair amount of derision directed at it. Arguments include that it’s derivative (as if Paradise Lost wasn’t?), it’s the mark of a weak writer, it’s lazy, there’s no quality control. It’s a waste of time. Fanfiction will always be a source of disagreement. Sure, there’s poor quality work out there, but there’s also really well-written work. There’s also the point that fanfiction should not be making money off of a pre-existing work, and if you can’t make money writing, are you even a Real Writer?

I really wanted to be a Real Writer, so I decided maybe I would get my MFA. I’d write a book. I’d learn more about the craft. I’d work with other writers. I’d be real.

Much like that strange time gap I experienced with Spongebob, I entered into my MFA when emphasis was still on traditional publishing, complete with querying agents nonstop and signing with houses. We were encouraged to query. Our advisory board was comprised of agents, editors, and publishers, and it was a great experience. But the metric for being a real writer still fell heavily in favor of the traditional route. Self-publishing existed, but there were no gates to ensure quality, so why would anyone go that route? Real writers queried until their fingers bled and read rejections until their eyes were raw and their hearts were stone.

Are you even a real writer if you don’t put that work in? If you can’t write 15,000 words a month, can’t query ad infinitum (wait–do those 15,000 words include the number of words in your queries and accompanying synopses?)… If you have a job that’s not writer? If you have a family? If you have shhhother hobbies?

I spent a couple of years after finishing grad school just sort of… meh about writing. My thesis novel needed some more work, but I didn’t know what kind of work, wasn’t sure where to find another group of writers to work with, and was really just burned out on that particular story. But I had no other ideas for other stories, and that’s where I think I started feeling like maybe this idea that I could be a writer was a silly dream. And at least my school district considered my MFA and I got bumped up the pay scale. Or as bumped as you can get in that district. I drifted. People asked how my writing was going, and it just wasn’t. Forget 15,000 words a month, I wasn’t getting 1500. Or 15.

In the end, it was Dragon Age that saved me. Okay, that’s dramatic. But Dragon Age has done a lot of good for me, and in this case it was no different. In 2011, after two years of not writing, I finished Dragon Age: Origins and was so taken with the world and the characters and the story that I wrote. I wrote fanfiction. I posted it. I started writing more and posting more. And more than that? I stopped caring if I was a real writer or not. I was just writing, and that was all that mattered.

It was healing, in a way (as I discovered during a 3am chat with Schattenriss the other night when Smol Human decided we needed to get up and sit, screaming, on the living room couch from 3-5am, and we were discussing the Writers’ Group from Hell tweet). With DA fanfiction, for the first time in a very long time I was writing because I loved it. Because I enjoyed what I was doing. I was writing for the sake of writing. I was improving my craft and experimenting with style and voice and creating stories for characters I loved, and I was doing it because I wanted to. Maybe some months I churned out thousands of words, I don’t know; I didn’t really keep track, to be honest. There was freedom to write for the sake of it, and it was a feeling I hadn’t had in a long time.

It’s been over ten years since I finished my MFA, and I’m not published (yet). I’ve written copious amounts of Dragon Age fanfiction, and I have no regrets. I have a family, including a wild Smol Human who is a wonder to watch grow (and a handful and a half, but he’s still amazing). I have a job I love. I definitely don’t have the ability to commit to 15,000 words every single month. Some months I’m churning out the words, and others I’m revising and editing. Still others I have other things going on and am lucky if I get significant writing done at all. Am I any less of a real writer?

I don’t think so. Everyone has a different pace and different path toward reaching their goals. For some it may be 15,000 words a month, but to impose that upon everyone who wants to write with you, and worse, to insinuate that if they can’t or don’t want to do that, they’re less of a writer or don’t take writing seriously enough?

Well, that’s when I suppose Spongebob memes are going to have to suffice, because dignified responses just won’t cut it. They’ll also be less than 15,000 words long.