Make Your Own Music

Image courtesy of K-On!

Sometimes even I catch myself trying too hard to fit in. Yes, me. The one who’s always gone on about being a nonconformist and doing my own thing. We all do it, really: we make ourselves a bit malleable so that we can get along with our employers, coworkers, neighbors, whoever it might be. Adjusting our lives in small ways so we can be a part of a functioning and peaceful workplace or society. And that’s a good thing! There’s really no good reason at all to be an active misanthrope other than to attract attention to yourself, and there’s no good reason at all to be actively terrible to people other than selfishness.

But sometimes, when I’m not paying attention to the situation, that malleability will take over and become the default. Always trying to be everything to everyone, as Art Alexakis once sang. In the process I’ll lose sight of my core self. And next thing I know, I’m feeling miserable and wondering how I let myself fall into this predicament. I’ll have lost sight of what I wanted because I hadn’t established my own boundaries.

So I need to remember to make my own music.

I’ve told managers that I might not follow their exact process of workflow, but I’ll prove that I have my own that work just as well (if not better, and still within their established regulations) for me and will achieve the same expected results. I’ve told them that I can’t do any off-schedule ‘on-call’ work because I have my writing career. I’ve told them that sometimes their role-playing training doesn’t work on me because I’m terrible at that on-the-spot “repeat what I just told you” style of learning because of the way my memory works — make me do it in a live setting and I’ll learn by doing instead.

What I’m saying is that I have to remember that the worst I can do is go into a new work situation and establishing an ‘I’ll do whatever you tell me’ malleability. I have to remember to let them know that my style is this: tell me why I need to do something and give me the context, and I’ll figure out my own way to make it work. That’s how my brain works best, and that’s how you’ll get the best out of me.

It might not be the musical score you’ve already established, but it’s a melody that makes sense to me and achieves the same goal.

The Fever Dream of Being a Creator

I’ve always wanted to create, ever since I was a kid. I knew early on I wanted to be three things: a writer, an artist, and a musician. Not just one or two of them — I wanted to be all three. It wouldn’t be something I’d learn overnight or through osmosis, of course. These were things I knew would be a lifelong learning experience.

The downside to this was that once I’d shared this dream with others, I was constantly reminded that, American capitalism being what it is, the expectations were super high. [Never mind the fact that whenever I mentioned writing as a kid, adults immediately expected me to follow in my father’s footsteps and become a reporter — which I did not want to do. I knew I wasn’t good at it, and it didn’t intrigue me. My strength is in making up stories.] Most of these expectations were learned by experience and by reading well-meaning advice books and columns: write this kind of fiction, always write in that style, shmooze with these people and you’re in. And in college: read these books, be influenced by that author, be a part of those scenes. I really hated that part of the creative field for a long time, to be honest: being forced into a mold I knew I wouldn’t fit into.

I tend to be the kind of writer who’ll read an article talking about bad things in fiction — prologues, dialogue tags that aren’t “said”, adverbs, whatever — and how I should never use them. Of course, the nonconformist in me (thank you, college radio!) always responded with, well, why not? I would use them anyway, not really to prove them wrong but to prove to myself that they can be used, one just needs to understand how they work to one’s benefit. For example, I play around a lot with unspoken pacing in my work as a subtle way to hint at impatience or exhaustion or whatever other emotion a character is feeling. It’s really fun to do and I’ve learned to pull it off. So I’m always worried that someone will read that scene and say it’s too slow, when I’ve spent a considerable amount of time deliberately making it slow on purpose. I know, it’s not for everyone, but I really enjoy doing it.

Anyway — I’ve been thinking a lot these days about just how much time and effort I need to put into my creativity and make it a strong career choice instead of just a hobby or a side thing. All this week I’ve hit 1000-plus words for all three writing projects, and just the other day I officially started up my Shutterstock portfolio page (it’s sparse at the moment but I’m working on building it up a few days a week). Yes, I’ve taken the plunge and also working on my photography. It’s long been on the backburner and it’s high time I started taking further steps.

That’s been my true motto with my creativity all this time: let’s see how far we can take this. It took me years to understand what I truly meant by that; I didn’t want it to mean ‘mavericky pushing the envelope’ or ‘shock value because I can get away with it’. I wanted that to mean, let’s take this creative outlet and play around with it, mold it into something worth expanding on, and make it a long-game career that I’ll always enjoy and dedicate time to. I did that in the late 90s with my writing. I’ve done it to some degree with my music playing. And now that I’ve realized I have another creative outlet that intrigues and inspires me — close-up nature and landscape photography — that I’d like to expand on. See how far I can take it. I’d like to think I’m pretty good at it to some degree (again, always room for improvement, of course) and I’m willing to take that next step to make it happen.

I call all this a fever dream because it feels like one to me sometimes. Dedicating that much time, energy and brain power to creativity is kind of weird if you think about it because most of the time you’re starting with absolutely nothing and making something out of it. I won’t say it’s “magical” as I so rarely think of it in those terms, but it really is unlike any other day job I’ve ever had. It’s following an idea and having absolutely no idea where it’ll take me, but trusting that I’ll get there if I trust myself.

It’s taken me far too long to get to this point, I’ll admit, but I’m glad I’m there now, and I won’t look at it in terms of regret. I’m here now, so let’s embrace it.

Let’s see where it goes.


I’ve heard all kinds of advice about names in fiction.  Some say you should really think it over before you chose a character’s name; others just suggest that you make the name believable and pronounceable.  I think most of us have grown out of needing a Dickensian hit-you-over-the-head name like jilted sweetheart Rosa Bud from The Mystery of Edwin Drood, of course.

What makes a good character name, though?

I’ll admit that I don’t think too much about it.  Just enough to make sure the name fits the character I have in mind.  I go with the sound of the name and the mood of the character.  Alec Poe’s name came to me when I wanted someone whose family was part of the collegiate crowd, and yet doesn’t quite fit his personality due to him being adopted.  Caren Johnson’s name was chosen because I wanted her to have a simple name despite her very important fate, to the point that I spelled her name with a C instead of an K.

Back when I was first trying out this whole writing gig, I didn’t even go that far; I just picked names of people I knew.  I knew three Scotts in junior high and used that as the Infamous War Novel’s central character.  I knew a few Stephens in high school and used that for Belief in Fate.   [‘Stephen’ became my go-to placeholder name for a lot of my stories at the time, especially around 1986 when I found it was Morrissey’s first name.]  Come to think of it, I knew absolutely no Simons, and that was probably my first not-based-on-anyone character, again in BiF.  I used Simon again with my anti-me Murph character (his full name is Simon Murphy — yes, it is in fact the same character who gets a cameo in The Persistence of Memories!), getting ‘Murph’ from the nickname of one of my managers at the college library.

It really wasn’t until 1993 when I started writing science fiction that I actually started focusing on choosing the right name, going just a slight bit further than just ‘because it sounds good’.  The characters in the original Vigil story were newer and better names for older IWN characters.  Most of the names in True Faith were chosen for a specific reason: there’s a family whose full names are all two syllables and the first name has double vowels; another family’s first names were only a single syllable and contained either O’s or A’s.

That’s when I realized that naming conventions could be used as a way to describe a family’s culture.  I could have a bit of fun with them by briefly telling the reader about the character’s background without actually having to do an infodump.  [There is a reason why the Shalei name is so prevalent in the trilogy: it’s an extremely common Meraladian clan name like the Vietnamese ‘Nguyen’ or the English ‘Smith’.  It’s meant to show that they are the largest Meraladian clan in this story’s world, even if they aren’t all closely related.]

Since then I’ve stayed with my own naming conventions, especially with the new projects.  There are a few characters named after the person or character that inspired them, and there are a few whose name fit their background.  I still don’t linger all that long on finding the best one, just one that rings true to who they are and what they’re about.  I’ve expanded over the years to include more names from different countries and cultures as well.

Do I have a list of names I’d like to use?  Sure I do!  It’s in my head, of course…one of those ‘I should use that somewhere’ lists that come up whenever I’m reading or watching something.  I own a few baby name books and name-meaning books as well.  I don’t think I’ve ever used a name specifically because it means anything, though.  More that I’ll use it backwards; a character I’ve already named might have some secondary or minor traits that fit in with said meaning, just to expand on their background.  Either way, it’s a necessary part of the writing process, and I’ve come to have fun with it.


And now I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve used the word ‘name’ so many times in this post it sounds like a silly sound effect in my head. :p