How not to hate someone

I ran into the original Mr. Shoes the other day, and I didn’t even recognize him.

Weird sentence? Let me back up a bit. I call both of the individuals I consider my personal nemeses at work “Mr. Shoes.” Not to their faces, of course, but suffice it to say I’m not the only person who knows of this nickname.

Harmless, isn’t it? Yet…oddly condescending. My favorite kind of spell to take away someone’s power over my emotions and reactions.

The title of this post suggests I’ve had to do this often. Not really! In fact, I like all the individuals I get to know as a rule; that means those who are the rare exception really stand out for me. If hate someone, you know I’m not the only one. (Or else I really am the only one and that’s when I know they’ve bewitched everyone else.)

But when I do dislike someone, more often than not, I still have to deal with them on a regular basis. So back to Mr. Shoes: I encountered him outside of my normal work haunts, and when he came bounding out of his office to greet my manager with a weird handshake-hug combo, I didn’t recognize him. Probably because he was wearing a sweatshirt, and the Mr. Shoes I knew would never have dared to come to the office in a sweatshirt. That’s the kind of thing August, the wearer of flip-flops, would do.

I’d so resoundingly forgotten his momentary sway over my feelings that I’d forgotten what he looked like.

Call it a blessing of how my memory works, sure, but I like to think it’s because I was able to apply these tactics that help me not despise someone who rubs me the wrong way and then crosses my path on the regular:

  • Give them a harmless nickname in your head. “Mr. Shoes” works so damn well because it’s non-specific to the person. To someone who doesn’t know the context, the nickname is meaningless, meaning it won’t come back to haunt me later in my career.
  • Identify their positive traits and build an inverse caricature. This may be something you have to do on a daily basis with some nemeses, like I had to do with a former coworker I’ll call “Ben.” My friend and I had similar frustrations with Ben, on totally different projects, so we regularly let the other vent. Then one day, we found ourselves consoling each other with the sensical things Ben had said to our common enemies, and from then on, we could both handle his nonsense. It’s the little things.
  • Look for explanations that humanize, not dehumanize. People have bad days, OK? Bodies hurt, hearts and egos are bruised, or futures are bleak. Look, digestive trouble hits all of us on some days, and some of us on most days. Assume your nemesis is going through the worst, unless you know they’re being an asshole for other reasons.
  • Indulge in little rebellions for yourself. By deriding my choice in footwear during a meeting, Mr. Shoes presented me with the perfect tiny rebellion: wearing flip-flops on days I knew I might encounter him. I once had a roommate who hated a particular shirt of mine – so I would wear it on those days when I needed a little extra boost to get past her snark.

Of course, I’m not advocating that you overlook truly abominable behavior. Report that ish through the proper channels. This is for those folks who irritate the heck out of you…but who aren’t really doing anything wrong.

Dogfooding your art

For a while, when I was a wee overachiever, I was often called a perfectionist. It wasn’t true, though. I was (and am) just good at spotting things that could still be improved.

A perfectionist can’t bear to put something out into the world until it’s perfect, and thankfully I’ve never really had that problem. (I’ve been posting my drafts online since 2001.)

When I started working at Microsoft nearly five years ago (!!), I learned of a business term that crops up in software development a lot: dogfooding. It’s short for “eating your own dog food,” or, “using your own damn product.” It’s great. I think it’s really vivid and kind of nasty, and that’s why it’s the right word — because at the point at which you’re dogfooding something, it’s probably not ready for your real audience. It’s a messy, uncomfortable process that’s absolutely necessary.

Dogfooding usually refers to software, or on occasion other products like cars or soft drinks, but I like to use it in regards to my art. You might stop me here and say, “August, how the heck am I supposed to use my own art?”

Great question! Start by reading it out loud, or sending it to a different device from the one you create on. Break out of the way you’ve been creating to experience it in another way. Turn it upside down if you have to. Read it backwards, sentence by sentence.

And then get your art out to your inner circle. Your squad. Your superfans who exist because they’re obligated by other social contracts: those people who, by blood relation or professional association or creative conglomeration, will happily consume what you make and then tell you what they think.

Bombard them with your art. Get a channel you’re comfortable with — whether that means making something private that’s invite only, or choosing a fresh username unassociated with your other online identities, or even just dumping your drafts on your regular social media platforms. Whatever you prefer, find a channel, set it up, and make it simple for you to post to it. Regularly.

That’s the secret. You have to constantly be updating, and pushing the latest to your dogfooders. The faster you get stuff out there, the faster you get feedback. And that’s what this is about: go forth and gauge your (limited and likely captive) audience’s reaction to what you create.

You don’t always need honest opinions from your dogfooders, or detailed breakdowns of their opinions. In fact, no answer at all can be very telling. Does your little sister “like” and comment on every one of your posts? Did she only “like” it this time? Take that as a tiny little point in the “no” column, make a few changes if you think she’s right, and test again, quickly.

Sometimes you might be uncertain of a detail or an approach you’re taking. That’s when you reach out and specifically ask for others’ perceptions of what you’re up to. You’ll be surprised to find out how often your audience is unable to see the flaws you’re stuck on, or how readily someone will offer exactly the perspective you needed to make it right.

If you want to improve, and if you want to truly speed up your ability to create, then you have to start getting feedback early and often. It turns out that the crappiest part of writing a novel is revising it; it’s tedious, frustrating, and confusing. And you’re only going to make any revision steps of your process easier on yourself by learning how to make good content the first time.

You get there by dogfooding.

Studiolog: Week of May 7th

Sometimes, life just gets out of control. Like a wild mustang with a mind of its own, only a lot less sexy.

To sum up the last four months: chaos, brilliance, triumph, frustration, angst, challenges.

And in the midst of all of that – what have the Shames been up to?

Building out the studio, to be completely honest. We’ve all acquired new loves for physical instruments, as well as their digital counterparts, and that’s taken us away from our virtual lives. But that’s okay. Despite everything, we’re all still happier.

Some of us got new jobs, or our roles in our existing jobs changed. Plus we’ve been rearranging the house where we all live to be a more effective studio. Between the two, they’ve completely eaten up our time for the last four months.

Today, we sat together in the sun and spent an hour and a half going over what we wanted our future to look like, and how we are going to get there. That means multi-colored index cards with responsibilities for everyone. Some things are small and easily accomplished, like writing micro-fiction for the Star Citizen competition. Some things are a little more ambitious, like writing a children’s book series about space (and a couple of aliens).

Of course, Amy and I have somehow continued to contribute to The Accidental Magic Project. I recently dropped the story “The Dog“, about a boy’s adventures at a magical animal shelter, and Amy’s most recent tale was “Fairly Bad Mother“, about second-rate fairy godparents.

What’s coming up? Plenty, I’m sure, but mostly we’re going to concentrate on launching the Damn Shames 2.0 – our publishing company. This means that I’m on the lookout for collaborative partners of all kinds!

If you’re someone who writes collaboratively and regularly, and you’re interested in being a part of an author collective, please contact me! I’d love to talk.

Studiolog: Week of January 22nd

Delays, delays. Our entire household has been sick at various times, the return to work for the new year exploded everywhere… Can I just something bizarre like, “The crows sagged on the line,” whenever I actually mean, “All of the usual excuses kept there from being updates lately”? Cool OK great.

So what have the Shames been up to, besides making excuses? Loads, actually!

For one thing, we’re going to produce a comic book. That’s right — a comic book. It’s something none of us have ever actually done before, but have all wanted to try our hands at in various capacities. We’re teaming up with spectacular comic artist Alex, who just happens to be offering his sketches for a fabulously affordable price (I highly recommend commissioning character art to inspire yourself to write!). I’m writing the script in Scrivener, using a template from Antony Johnston.

Everyone — and I mean everyone — has picked up at least one instrument in the last three weeks (Josh dug out his electric guitar, Amy found her true love in an electronic wind instrument, and Jake has rediscovered his Maschine), and the Damn Shames are making wild, weird, and (sometimes) surprisingly decent tunes together. We’re not trying to be a band, per se — it just turns out we all enjoy letting our brains unwind with a little collaborative music. The hope is to make all of our own music for our videos, and maybe sell some of the better songs as stock music on the side.

The Accidental Magic Project rolls on, with Jill contributing her first story, “Working Title,” and Janice gracing us with her first installment, “Imbolg.” My colleague and weird wordfriend Dylan is our first guest, and, spoilers, his story is great. (It’ll be up on our website tomorrow!) I’ve started my February story, but barely; as usual, looks like I’ll wait until the last minute to really get going.

I’ve got a commission of my “Portent” characters coming from artist Katharine Linnea, so I should be sharing that in the next few weeks. We’re trying to get the fifth issue of Ships Illustrated to the virtual presses. Aaand, I need to get off my ass and buy an ISBN number for Daugment so I can sell a physical edition. Goals!

If you’re someone who writes collaboratively and regularly, and you’re interested in being a part of an author collective, please contact me! I’d love to talk.

Tensing up

I used to write short stories by sitting down and starting. Blank page, rough word count in mind, and go.

These days, I’m less inclined to begin without knowing where I’m going. (Yes, I traded in pantserdom for plannerdom.) I’ll start in my notebook, jotting down character or setting notes, poking at plot points. I might even start writing a paragraph or two by hand, to see if it feels right, before I transition to a Word document or OneNote page.

I’ve been working on my February short story for The Accidental Magic Project for about a week now, starting with the above notebook material. I’d actually come up with a potential starting place, and typed up five paragraphs of prose virtually…but then I’d stalled. It didn’t feel quite right.

I went over and over and over the words, looking for the weak spots. I tweaked something here and there half-heartedly. It didn’t feel like the changes were fixing the problem.

Then last night, I was reading it “aloud” in my head, and about halfway through it struck me — I had changed the tense from past to present in my reading.

The story came alive! My main character, Savas, wasn’t just dickish in the past, he was dickish now, and this gave the narrative the immediacy I didn’t even know I’d been looking for. Off I went, speeding towards the plot points I’d outlined in my notebook.

Which brings me to the point of this post: If you’re stuck, try changing tenses. It won’t solve every instance of writer’s block, but it’s an immediate, powerful shift in purpose and perspective.

In present tense, I find that characters’ desires are more pressing, more present. I also find that even when I’m writing in third person, I draw closer to my main character when I write in present tense. (I use present tense exclusively in my [stalled] serial story “A Mutiny of Pirates.”)

Some stories demand the emotional distance provided by past tense. But if you’re sensing that yours doesn’t, give present tense a whirl and see how it goes.

Leisure of the miiquils

Today on Twitter, I posted this “Promptly”:

Promptly: Setting Saturday. In the world of your current work, describe leisure culture. Freewrite for 10 minutes, or 2 sprints of 5 minutes.

Since I’m trying to provide examples in the same breath, I wrote a brief response about my miiquil species (from the world of Portent)… and ended up thinking about it all day. (I blame one of my art & writing inspirations, whom I’ll call TVWT, for inspiring me to expand on this kind of public worldbuilding as a way of motivating myself to explore my world further!)

Leisure of the miiquils

Miiquils are very social creatures, and generally prefer to spend their leisure time with friends and family. Since leaving Miiqua, the colony has become even more close-knit and insular, making their culture’s emphasis on feasts, festivals, and group worship even more prominent.

Feasts

Food plays a major role in miiquil culture, due to their origins as a gatherer society, constantly on the move to escape the predatory species that chased them. When they have excess, they consume it quickly together, enjoying the time spent over a delicious meal. When times are leaner, or they’re on the move and can’t afford to carry much extra sustenance, they focus on flavor subtleties and the inherent enjoyment of the eating experience.

Families, extended families, neighbor groups, and even entire clans will eat together; any occasion is just an excuse to pull extra food and drink from storage and indulge in gluttony.

Some of their favorite foods include:

  • Daari-stuffed pastries
  • A hearty yet light bean soup called cardil, made with chickpeas and onions
  • Boppan (lentil “meatballs”)
  • Lightly-grilled fish and other sea life (though most miiqs are actually vegetarians for most of the year)

Their favorite spices include bay leaves, parsley, black pepper, cumin, and a variety of chili peppers, all of which they call by very different names.

Festivals

Miiquils are festival-happy: about half of their festivals are ritualistic preparations for the other half. Since the celebrations and traditions are all tied to the seasons and their planet’s rotation around its sun, they can be adapted to whatever world the miiquils are currently inhabiting. In the case of Kihata (their word for Earth), the years are shorter than on Miiqua, and so there is a festival nearly every other (human) week.

During any festival, miiqs will throw large parties, spend a lot of time eating and drinking, and pray en masse.

Rain-season festivals are about renewal, fresh starts, new love, and births. Feasts are modest, as there is less fresh food early in the year, before the heat has had time to coax new plants out of the earth. But those who survived hard winters are often feeling quite delighted about surviving — and are in the mood to perpetuate the species, right as the roughly year-long gestation period comes to an end for young-bearers and the new generation is born.

Heat-season festivals center around abundance, success, coming-of-age, and fertility. When miiqs can safely settle in one place for a while, the heat-season is a time of harvest and plenty, a time when bellies are full and heads are clear enough to give older adolescents their welcome to adulthood.

Cold-season festivals celebrate ancestors, survival, togetherness, and family. Even a humid rainforest-heavy planet like Miiqua saw its colder season, when food plants died off or stopped producing, and predators grew hungry and extra nasty. Cold-season is a time to be thankful for being alive and with loved ones, and is also the time when communities get together to create large communal art projects, which they trade for other community art at other seasonal festivals.

Temples and religion

The miiquils worship a quadrant of forces, the most powerful forces of the planet on which they reside. On Miiqua, these were Wind, Skyfire (lightning), Sea, and Moon (theirs was very large and had a significant pull on the tides). On Kihata, these are Wind, Sea, Stone, and Green (Miiqua’s plant life was rarely green). Collectively, the forces are referred to as “cherann,” or “life-givers and life-takers” (the literal English translation).

In miiquil tradition, cherann are not actual personified beings, but rather the underlying fabric of the worlds and therefore to be heeded, respected, and consulted. Followers of cherann are not generally superstitious, but rather practical and logic-driven, yet able to both see and sense how all things are connected and influenced by one another. This even allows some of them, through intense training begun early in a miiq’s life, to become “seercasters” — that is, combining knowledge of the laws of physics with the power of cherann to create such intense illusions that they may be acted upon as real by living beings who encounter them.

Most miiqs believe in cherann, or at least live their life by its natural rhythms. At the four corners of any miiquil settlement — including Naushena, the island on which the miiqs live in “Portent” — a temple is placed for each cherann. This is dictated by tradition.

Not dictated by tradition, however, is the placement of these temples; this is eclectic, left up to the individual city planners to decide. On Naushena, Sea is at the north, Wind is at the east, Green at the south, and Stone at the west. (There are probably reasons for this, but nobody is sure of them.)

Miiqs often go right after their labors are over to pray and meditate at one of the four temples. Though all miiqs can and do worship at any temple, most gravitate towards a particular one, often (but not always) associated with where Kihata was in its revolution around the sun when they were born.

Studiolog: Week of January 1st

It’s 2018! Yay, another human-dictated increment of time-passing has occurred!  Well, OK, the Earth’s regular rotation isn’t a bad measurement. Fine.

No matter the reason for the new season, it’s a good time to launch new projects, make announcements of intentions, and reflect and set goals. At least, I like to do that — gives me fewer excuses to stop doing something if I’ve promised to do it “just for one year,” and if that year is easy to measure (like, January 1st to December 31st).

So what have the Shames been up to? It’s been a weird short week, due to the holidays, so the studio has not been hyperactive the past few days. However… I’m very excited to announce The Accidental Magic Project! Jill and I have dreamed up numerous projects in the past together (such as The Scribblers’ Club, an unfinished novel called “Return to Elgin,” and our original 50 Unexplainable Stories (and its year-long sequel, the unnamed challenge), and this might just be my favorite.

The gist of The Accidental Magic Project is this: every Friday, one of us (myself, Jill, or Janice) or our guests will post a story. The theme of that story will be “accidental magic” — meaning magic that, intentionally or unintentionally, brings about unintended consequences. I cannot wait to see what kinds of stories our writers come up with on this theme. I’ll be posting the very first one tomorrow!

I’m so excited, too, because I’ve gotten some brand new writers on board, along with writers I’ve collaborated with in the past and am ecstatic to work with again. One of our guests’ 11- and 9-year-old daughters will even be sharing their stories with us! That’s my very favorite thing about creative projects that get artists working together: watching those who’ve never tried something like this before understanding the power of seeing it through, of having finished a story. It’s simply magical.

This week, I also launched Promptly on Twitter, a daily series of writing prompts I’ve created to get folks interested in my current project: a book of writing prompts with “Promptly” in the title. I’m saving my best ones for the book, of course, but here’s an example of the daily prompts I quite enjoyed writing.

The Shames have been prepping for the art-heavy year ahead, acquiring some a new hard drive for capturing footage, as well as a LOT of art reference books for publishing projects and promotional materials. (Like, a LOT. We cleaned out an entire section of Half Price Books.)

If you’re someone who writes collaboratively and regularly, and you’re interested in being a part of an author collective, please contact me! I’d love to talk.

Beautiful moments of 2017

No doubt 2017 was a rough year for a lot of the world. I find myself among the privileged, so I can only imagine how it was for those who can’t hide away from the awful things in the news, because those things are a part of their reality.

So instead of lingering on the painful moments, and in the spirit of thankfulness, I wanted to record a few of my most beautiful moments of 2017:

Clicking “Publish” on Daugment, a moment I’d spent decades building up to.

Holding my first physical Cortana product in my hands for the first time, and talking to my digital progeny from the kitchen.

Communing with my flock of crows as they preened sleepily in the late spring heat.

Collecting a set of prayers, blessings, and spells from around the world on the morning of the total eclipse, then donning my special glasses to murmur the prayers and watch the crescent consumption of the sun for a few hours, knowing the rest of the country was doing the same in that creepy, blessed half-light.

Sitting perched on a stool, a hot laptop on my knees, with my Damn Shames crew around me, bantering with GrayheadedGamer and about 100 hardcore Star Citizen fans about Ships Illustrated and why we love making stories.

Screaming until I was hoarse at a Storm game, with Amy by my side doing the same, remembering exactly why I love the thunder and squeak of the basketball court.

Standing over Snoqualmie Falls with my husband of nearly five years now, marveling at how much we still love to kiss each other even when our noses are frozen red.

Micro-magic

The roots of his teeth were magic. He could feel the storms in them, knew the names of the winds before they blew through his woods.

Her fingernails were magic. They glimmered when a child lied in her presence.

Their loom was magic. They wove stories into the blankets they made, stories whispered nightly in a sleeper’s ear to soothe or disturb.

The tuft of hair that always fled her ponytail was magic. It pointed the way she ought to go when her cursed sense of direction led her astray.

His snores were magic, putting yappy dogs and fussy babies to sleep without objection.

The spiderwebs across their front door were magic. They kept Death from entering for nearly 70 years.

Her wedding ring was magic. She could find anything lost in the house, but only when she wore it.

Taking myself seriously

Earlier this year, squadmate Amy sent me a Sarah Cooper article. Beyond the fact that the article was painfully spot-on (I’m guilty of all of them except maybe the one-handed typing and the moustache), it was well-written and enticing. I went deeper into her catalog.

And I found “Do You Take Yourself Seriously?

My heart sank as I read through it. Because no, I didn’t, not really.

These three quotes stood out to me, as what happens when you don’t take yourself seriously:

“You can no longer tell the difference between what you want and what other people want from you.”

“You resent people who do [take themselves seriously]. You look at people who promote themselves and their ideas and you think they’re egotistical or ridiculous.”

You rush through a half-hearted execution and don’t give yourself the time you need to learn something new, or do it the right way. And when it doesn’t turn out the way you wanted you decide it was a total waste of time.”

Oh. Ouch. That’s familiar.

Cooper even expresses her own doubts about writing the very piece that I was reading, published on Medium. Her thoughts, as transcribed, sound so much like my own inner monologue does on a regular basis: “Why am I writing this? This is stupid. This is repetitive. Hasn’t someone else said this before but better? Do I even know what I’m trying to say?”

Oh. Ouch. That’s familiar too.

If those lines hit you in the same feels they hit me, I recommend a full read-through of the article, because Cooper takes you swooping over those immense pits of despair she bitingly describes in perfect detail, and then up, up, towards the light, in a way pull-quotes don’t capture.

The thing is, what Cooper’s talking about is very simple, though not very easy. It’s “just” a change in mindset. “Just” an attitude adjustment.

That is to say: It is both an overnight and a lifelong change.

After I first read this article about four months ago, I decided to take myself seriously. How did it go? One clue: I finished Portent after just over two months of really working on it. Another clue: I still had to edit myself in the above sentence from “I decided to try and take myself seriously” to “I decided to take myself seriously.”

Progress is happening, it just ain’t easy.

Such tiny differences — making a conscious effort not to pre-judge myself, giving myself as much benefit of the doubt as I would give someone I love, and treating my ideas like cherished possibilities — have made some huge changes in the way I’ve done things since September. I think about my art as a business in a clearer way, and I’m reading and learning and writing (privately, so far) about how to make my publishing model work. I pitch myself and my ideas to people I’ve just met (admittedly, they’ve mostly been online).

I know the magic of this revelation could fade, and that I might need a reminder in a few months to read Sarah Cooper’s article again. But that’s okay. It’s a damn good article.

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