The Healer-Writer and Other Reflections on Med School

When I started writing I was faced with a decision: how much did I want to reveal about who I am and what I do to potential readers? At the time I started conservative. I decided to be a bit vague on my location, generally indicate that I have cats/not kids, and made reference to being a “medical professional.” I’ve been thinking about that last part a lot lately, and anyone who knows what’s going on in my life knows why. Five days ago I graduated from medical school. I’m a doctor.

There. I said it.

I had been reluctant to be upfront about what I do because of interviews and residency-related things that were taking up my time. Medical school is a long and treacherous journey in which any single person’s opinion of your “fitness” as a physician can bite you, and bite hard. I wasn’t sure what others might think if they dug into my creative pursuits. My imaginary world is rather personal – it reflects a lot about my values and identity. I’m proud of who I am, but I’m also an unassuming person who tries not to offend people in real life, particularly if they’re my supervisors. There were plenty of reasons not to specify my profession and schooling at the time, so I didn’t.

Having graduated and secured a residency, I’ve come to re-think this whole thing. At this point book sales are going relatively well by my standards (this isn’t saying a whole lot, mind you, but it buys my sandwiches), and I have a few people who are reading this blog stuff. With the increased attention I want to talk more – the trouble is finding things to say. I find that there’s always this block in front of doing anything besides promoting books and showing off snippets, because when you get down to it, >50% of my time in any given week is devoted to medical things. So much of what I could be saying has to do with what it’s like to be a med student (now a physician) and how I balance that with being a creative person.  Until today, I’ve avoided all that.

Another reason I’m doing this is because I wrote a piece a couple nights ago about my experiences in med school. I tend to reflect a lot (as so many writers do), and ended up with a decent writeup on what what the last four years look like from down here at the med school finish line (also known as the residency/actual job starting line). I was thinking, hey, I’ll post this on facebook, tag these friends that I’m talking about…

…and then I thought about how I could just put it on the blog where I post the rest of my writing anyway. People I meet in real life seem to find the ‘published a book in med school’ thing pretty interesting, so maybe you, dear reader, might also find it interesting. If you’re a medical student you might even find it inspiring regardless of whether you have any interest in my fiction. I know that I found it inspiring to read about students and docs who were still functional, complete human beings, especially during first year before I figured out how to make my life and my work jive together.

Many people have asked how I ever “found the time” to do what I’ve done, so I’d like to address that briefly before I go on. Those that ask the question act as if my writing was some tedious, required activity, a massive feat that must have taken dedication and strength. I always laugh when I get this question, because I’m not sure I would have survived the process without it. I wrote more during rotations I found distasteful (hello surgery, peds and OB-GYN) than on any other rotations. In fact, the entire scene from the temple in Torvid’s Rest was written in between delivering babies while I was on labor and delivery nightshift. I would love to encourage anyone in the medical field (physicians, NP’s, PA’s, what have you) to indulge in their passions outside of medicine, no matter what that passion is. I haven’t been in the profession that long, but I’ve already seen my share of burnout – I’d like to think that having an active non-medical life is one of the keys to avoiding that.

I could tell you a lot of stories about being the ninja fiction writer in med school, but this post is already getting too long, and there’s the whole thing about the reflective piece I wanted to share. I’m attaching that particular bit below.

***

Somebody told me once that the best part of medical education is the time between when you get your acceptance and when you matriculate. Well, I’m done with medical school now, so I guess I can have an opinion on that. For what it’s worth, I don’t necessarily agree with that assessment. I see things a little differently.

Med school is an insane ride. Even periods of time that seem innocent like “after the match” or “before matriculation” can be fraught with anticipation, stress and busywork. Every step of the process had a little bit of horrible and a little bit of wonderful in it, in different proportions. It was akin to a giant swing or a poorly-constructed carnival ride wherein there are periods of abject terror – reaching the top and fearing you might fly off and die – followed by periods of the swing-back, where things are better, and even great.

I have snapshots of the last four years in my head, all floating free now that graduation is over. Sitting here and analyzing it, there was more than enough of the fear and anguish part – of thinking, “why didn’t I go into marine biology?” or “maybe I should have been a starving author,” or better yet, “I can’t tell if food service was better or worse than this.” I saw classmates who struggled personally and professionally at times, not one of us immune to the episodes of self-doubt, wondering if we did the right thing or if we would even make it out the other side. There was drama and professors who drove us batty, gossip and class-wide turmoil. More than anything else there was a whole lot of frantic studying just hoping to pass a test, bargaining with one’s preferred higher power (be it deity or luck) for one more day where we could prove that we belonged in this profession. On clinical rotations we saw the beginning of life and its end, people in pain, torn-up families and good people who were suffering for what seemed to be no greater purpose. We witnessed both the triumphs and the failures of medicine, sometimes because of holes in our science and other times because of simple human inadequacies.

Each one of those despairing memories is contrasted with events that still make me smile. I remember very clearly the first time my friend-crew got together, and the first of many times we celebrated following a test. There were late-night study sessions interrupted by hysterical bouts of laughter, trips to conferences and the fun we had after. There was time spent in class, chatting with the almost-back-row-gang, turning white as a sheet when a certain professor asked uncomfortable questions. We daydreamed about our future lives, and watched those dreams grow and change into what they are now. I worked alongside colleagues who were resilient in the face of unruly hours and ridiculous expectations, who met every challenge without sacrificing their compassion. We were privileged to meet and care for some incredible patients. We all have those private memories of the patients who called us “doc” when we insisted we were students, the ones who thanked us for our kindness, and those who said we were going to be great physicians.

The thing I remember best about this whole mess is the laughter and the people who I call friends – great human beings, and now, some of the greatest doctors I’ve ever met. We have stories that nobody can take from us and share a bond that is entirely unique.

In many ways I grew up in medical school, and I think that probably goes for a lot of us, no matter how old we were when we started. The changes induced by a medical education are inescapable. For some people, sadly, it stole things from them; surely I lost my share of hobbies and knowledge throughout this process, but I’d like to think that I’ve gained far more than I’ve shed in order to become the person I am now.  Intern year is going to be another swing upward with the stomach-dropping fear that goes along with it, but I have faith that all of us are going to make it. We made it this far.

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Sequel Syndrome

“I can only hope it’s true enough/That every little thing I do for love/Redeems me from the moments I deem worthy of the worst things that I’ve done…”

I always have a song to go with every scene. It doesn’t have to be playing the whole time I’m writing, but generally it has to be playing when I start writing, and I have to replay it periodically while the scene is going. The tone of my environment is very important for my writing performance. Lately I’ve been working on some Les-heavy scenes, and Les tends to be a Panic at the Disco kind of guy. So, for fun, I give you today’s scene theme music before I launch into our discussion –

Things have slowly been calming down in my personal life while they’ve been ramping up in my writing life (two different lives, of course). The sequel is now at 52,000 words and climbing, and the further I go the more appreciation I have for every sequel I’ve ever read, particularly the good ones. Ask anyone who has talked to me in the last month and a half, and they will tell you that at some point I mentioned “book two” and some variation of “kicking my ass” in the same breath. Until the last few weeks I’ve been suffering from horrible writer’s block/writing anxiety and self-doubt, even as I’ve received praise from readers about Tragedy.Both the joy and the torment of writing is stretching yourself – forcing yourself to understand a new viewpoint, solve a new problem, or sharpen a new literary skill. For me, the sequel has been a challenge in ways I could not imagine.

I knew Suffering (which I am considering renaming to Sacrifice, but that’s beside the point) would be more complicated. At the end of book one the world opens up, and book two is all about the flood of information and the fallout from the climax of the previous story. In the beginning I’ve got four separate groups of people doing their own thing, which later consolidates to 2-3, depending on how you count. I thought to myself, sure, juggling that many plots/subplots is going to take a lot of mental energy, and that’s going to be hard. There’s going to be more action, which is not necessarily my forté, and also more interpersonal development; figuring out how to stay true to your characters while ensuring they have an actual arc takes a bit of a deft hand.

The problem I didn’t anticipate was the variable independent of my actual story – the problem is I’m writing a sequel, and sequels are just plain difficult. I’ve written two full novels by this point in my life, one that is published and one that never will be, but until now I’ve never written the continuation of a larger story.  Problems of writing a sequel widely include ruining something that was previously good, worrying about disappointing an audience, writing a story that is “all middle,inconsistencies, and my personal white whale, obsessively wondering why your sequel rough draft looks nothing like your beautifully polished first novel (I never claimed to have a rational muse, just an inconvenient one). One need not list the many sequels which failed to live up to their debut counterparts *ahem* but they are legion, and consumers have almost come to expect that the second installment of any story, regardless of the media form, will be somehow diminished.

Of course, there are some sequels that managed to dodge the sequel syndrome. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was actually my favorite of the series, and was pretty well-received by most readers; The Wrath of Khan is known to be one of the great classic Star Trek movies. The Two Towers is also well-regarded in the arena of sequels (and again was my favorite of that series), and nobody in the movie world should forget The Dark Knight as perhaps one of the best movie sequels to grace the screens (bias here – I adored Dark Knight). These sequels share several common traits; they stand well on their own as stories, in general, and they deepen the observer’s connection to the characters in some way. In Khan we had the heart-wrenching moment of Spock “dying” behind the glass. Dark Knight had its own fascinating arc within the Joker and his ever-escalating trail of violence. Many blogs out there in the world seem to agree that the keys to writing a good sequel are – as you might guess – the very opposite of what makes a bad sequel.

All that said, I’m doing my level best to avoid the sequel syndrome pitfalls by keeping things interesting, getting the plot moving, and throwing in a few surprises. It helps that one of my characters is unpredictable by nature, giving me a great tool to liven things up from time to time. As to the anxiety of ruining the series and the problem of trying to edit before I get words on the page, I’ve decided to forcibly restrain myself from editing as I type. The rough draft looks perhaps even rougher than it already was, but at least things are moving now. I have to remind myself that Tragedy wasn’t beautiful in its first iteration, either.

The learning curve sharpens. To you, dear reader, I leave a question: what do you think makes a good sequel?

The Incidentally Gay Character

A number of people who read Tragedy lately have specifically approached me about Garren. Some of those comments were from people who have not read Fathers and Sons, and they (perhaps understandably given the lack of representation in genre fiction) asked if my reference to Garren’s husband was a typo. Just to be clear to those who were not prepared for this: yes, Garren is a gay man. I am not afraid of that fact, and indeed, neither is he.

Incidentally, Garren was not originally written as a homosexual character; this fact evolved slowly from my experiences with him. When it came time to discuss his past it just seemed natural that he preferred relationships with men, and that was that. I made a conscious decision not to “hang a flag” on Garren’s sexuality while writing the scene in question, and I’d like to give you a little insight as to why.

Even though I didn’t set out with an agenda to have a gay character, I put considerable thought into how I wanted to deal with issues of skin color, gender, and sexuality before I started writing Tragedy. I think there is great merit in highlighting the struggles of minority groups through stories. As I’ve said before, societal shifts are slow and subtle, and the media can be an incredible vehicle for change. However, when I was thinking of what I wanted to portray in my work, I decided to take a radically different approach. I thought to myself, what if I made a series of societies in which color, gender, and sexual orientation were non-issues? What would that look like?

How could a story like that affect a reader’s perspective?

In the end I decided that I wanted to create a world where those problems are not paramount in order to showcase our human similarities. I’d like to think that all of us are more similar than we are different – I see it in my life every day. We all experience love, loss, hardship, and triumphs – these are things that bind us, and in my mind, these things are the most important. This was one of the chief motivators behind writing Fathers and Sons – it is a story about love, family, and loss in which the main character’s homosexuality is far less significant than his emotional journey.

I’m very pleased that most people seem to like Garren a lot, regardless of their views on his sexuality. Several have even pointed him out as a favorite character. Garren’s strength, honor, and compassion are the attributes that most people remember about him. It’s hard for me to play favorites with my imagination-children, but if I had to… well, I don’t want to make the kids jealous. 😉

As an aside, this is probably a good time for me to explicitly state that you’re not imagining things – yes, Elden is bisexual. He shows up only briefly in Tragedy, but rest assured I am having tons of fun with Elden in Suffering. 34,000 words and counting, folks. This is real!

Writing Without a Net

I haven’t had a whole lot to say here lately because, well, I’ve been busy. Not with writing, of course – perhaps if I was busy with that I might have more to blog about – but busy with career things, with job application things, with terribly mundane things I wish I didn’t have to pay attention to. It’s only in my “spare time” that I’ve been able to work on finishing my last edits… and I have a super fun announcement to make tomorrow morning regarding the book. You only get one guess what it is, though, because it should be terribly freaking obvious by now.

I have, of course, already started Book 2. After I finished Tragedy and had it sent off to my beta readers, I couldn’t wait to dive into the sequel, Suffering. The first few chapters are floating around already, but on a recent cross-country plane ride I discovered that 90% of what I’ve written in Suffering needs to be tossed, and the end of Tragedy needed to be tweaked.

I say ‘tweaked,’ but if anyone becomes attached to these characters it’s going to amount to more than just a minor difference. However, if the change isn’t made then Book 2’s plot simply doesn’t work (or doesn’t work without a lot of ridiculous retconning). Of course, tweaking Tragedy by adding one scene to the end is no big thing for that book – but it means losing most of what I’ve written in Suffering. You would think that losing 90% of what I worked on would bother me, but as I reflected on the changes I’m making, it’s really quite normal for me.

That leads me into the brief discussion topic of this post. All authors have a different method of writing. The wonderful, beautiful, fantastical podcast Writing Excuses recently did a show entitled Digging Yourself Out of Holes’ which explored this topic a bit. As they explain in the podcast, there are folks who outline before writing, termed ‘architects,’ and there are those who write without a really firm plan, a method termed ‘discovery writing.’ Naturally people can fall anywhere on the spectrum between the two; not everyone is either strictly structural or wild and crazy stream-of-consciousness. As you see above, in my case, I lean more towards the latter. I like to think of it as writing without a net.

Part of that has to do with my inner nature. I’m a person who likes to intuitively feel through situations, and focusing on details makes me awfully bored (reason #1 why I hated anatomy class). Writing is my fun hobby on the side, and while I’m sure I’d be more efficient if I planned everything out, I would also be a lot less motivated to do it.  Not planning is more exciting, but the downside is that I probably went though 5 radically different scenarios for the story in Tragedy before I found the “true” story (really, the one that made any sense). I’ve got tomes of discarded writing scraps between the drafts of Tragedy and the drafts of my probably-never-to-be-published first novel, 4012.

How do I write if I have no structure? I have goals. I start stories with two things in mind – an image of the first scene and an image of the last scene. The adventure is in trying to get from beginning to end and making it all sensical. Sometimes this means I’ll get running on a premise that I really like, and then I outline a few chapters ahead to remind myself of my train of thought. Those outlines are pretty flexible, though, and usually consist of dialogue clips or one particular image that needs to be described. Interestingly enough, my original final scene did not make it into Tragedy even though I was working towards it for the entire book, even in the final draft. Things just didn’t quite pan out that way. The result is quite satisfying to me, though, and hopefully it’ll be satisfying to you.

So that’s my little spiel for the day. Keep an eye out tomorrow… that’s all I’m sayin’.

The Challenge of Cheerfulness

Well I’m sure you’ve been waiting for my exalted opinion on the matter (no really, you can breathe again!), so I will start out by saying that I thoroughly enjoyed Anne Bishop’s latest novel, Written in RedI’m not going to go full-on book report on this mini-review, but I’ll give you my impressions and my sincere recommendation that you give the book a try if it sounds at all interesting.

A departure from her previous works of fantasy, Written in Red is an urban fantasy novel complete with werewolves, vampires, and a variety of other paranormal creatures (those that are called “The Others”). I expected that this novel wouldn’t be your run-of-the-mill, standard vampire vs shifter kind of story, and I was completely right. The characters had the Anne Bishop charm that I have come to expect from her work, and The Others were portrayed in an organic, character-driven light that I haven’t seen so much in other urban fantasy books. Specifically, she did a great job characterizing her shifter characters as very animalistic and… well, other. Of course she has done this kind of thing in the past – the kindred from Black Jewels were some of my favorite characters.

Above all, Written in Red was an example of how an author who has a history of writing deeply dark and sometimes disturbing fiction can take you to the extreme opposite end of the emotional spectrum. Somewhere in the middle of Written in Red the main character, Meg, works her naiive charm on a very broken, sad character, and the moment where Meg’s kindness comes to fruition was so adorable and lovely that it brought me to tears. So freaking adorable!

It got me to thinking, of course, about my own work (after all, learning is about observation). I view Anne Bishop as a sort of role model – I have been in love with her characters for the last 8 years, and devour each book in less than a week of purchasing it. She’s not a classical master of prose or anything like that, but she is an author who has sucked me into her worlds over and over again. Her darker themes please me on whatever level causes me to write dark stories, and her style is fluent enough that it doesn’t grate on my senses. The heartwarming thing, though…

If you met me on the street, I don’t know that you would peg me for the kind of gal who writes tragic, bloody fantasy stories. I smile pretty easily. I like to laugh and joke, and I fancy myself to be a cheerful person most days. I wear colors, though I have been known to dress in some quantity of black (it is so very attractive… and helps one blend in with creatures of the night… >.>). However, as cheerful as I might be in person, I do not write heartwarming stories in any sense of the word. Sitting on the bus during my commute, I kept trying to think of a hearth-fires-and-hot-chocolate moment from any of my scenes.

I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t come up with one. Witty moments? Maybe… at least I’d like to believe I have a few of those in there. Funny moments? Smirk-worthy moments, at least. Heartbreaking moments? I certainly felt heartbroken when I was writing a few of the scenes from Forsaken Lands and Fathers and Sons, so I can only hope that you felt what I was feeling at the time. Heartwarming moments, though, not so much.

Anne Bishop had a few of those delightfully cheerful moments in her prior work, but none so prominent as those in Written in Red. It’s an intriguing proposition, really, to consider putting a scene in the book that makes the reader feel that unique blend of heart-wrenching and soul-feeding happy-sadness that comes with a dramatic… is there another word for heartwarming? I’m getting tired of using the same word too many times in this post. Anyway. It’s a skill that would seem to take some training for those of us who specialize in the tragedies; a skill I would like to sharpen in the future. Will there be any warming of the hearts in Forsaken Lands 2? It remains to be seen at this point…

That’s just my musing of the night. I was feeling guilty about not posting anything in a while, especially when the release date for Forsaken Lands Book 1 is so very, very close! The cover art is coming together beautifully, and the final pre-publishing edits are certainly somewhere in the process. I wouldn’t say almost done. Or even halfway done. Close enough that I can finish it off before the end of the month, though, that’s for sure!

Trust me, we got this over here.

As usual, I leave you with a question to close: are there any emotional states you have a hard time reaching with your writing? To those who primarily read, what scenes do you find authors struggling with in the work you enjoy?

Do I write like a woman?

I’ll go ahead and say it since you’ll probably either find out or figure it out eventually: I consider myself a feminist. Now I’m sure I’ve lost a few of you with that statement alone, but for those of you still listening, I’d like to get a few things out there.

  • I do not hate men. In fact, I love men. The majority of my characters happen to be men, actually, which causes mixed feelings.
  • I believe in equal rights for all people – gay, lesbian, queer, straight, bisexual, transexual, extraterrestrial, lens-glare white to mahogany brown. I understand that there has on occasion been friction between the feminist community and the LGBT community, so I want to be quite clear on that point in particular.
  • I’m not looking for a fight. I’d like to believe that all of us have more in common than we have differences.
  • I define who I am. Although I believe in a lot of feminist principles and loosely categorize myself as “a feminist,” I refuse to be defined by the actions of others under the same title. Do not ask me to defend the questionable actions of others. I speak for myself, and myself alone.

Now with that all out of the way (or so I’d hope), I’d like to continue on and discuss this article (blog post?) that I read earlier today. “Michelle Rodriguez Made Me Cry at Comic Con” by Kate Conway relates Kate’s personal experiences at Comic Con, specifically a panel called “Women Who Kick Ass.” The women on the panel recounted several stories about how other males on the set treated them, at times, with a lack of respect, and how the writers seemed to have difficulty writing believable scenes for them. Maggie Q described a classic scene in which her character was performing kung fu in high heels (and anyone who has ever worn high heels will tell you that there is nothing you would rather do less than perform fast, athletic movements in heels). This kind of ridiculous scene is rampant in all manner of fantasy and science fiction.

Tangent: Seriously guys, why in the world would someone as “efficient” as Seven of Nine wear something as frivolous as high heels and a catsuit? As minor and somewhat irrelevant as it is, that kind of thing has always bugged me. Fortunately Joss Whedon and whoever he works with proved that women do not have to be seen in only fancy shoes and tight-fitting outfits by choosing reasonable clothing/shoes for the characters in Firefly.

Digressions aside, the following quote from Kate Conway’s article inspired this post…

In that moment, though, I didn’t know any of that. As the moderator started wrapping things up, apologizing for having to leave “right as things were getting good,” Michelle leaned forward to her mic again.

“We gotta start writing,” she said again. She meant women. “Writing, and directing, and producing the kind of content we want to see. Because otherwise, nothing’s gonna change.”

I’ve seen this kind of sentiment expressed a lot lately amongst the growing subset of feminist nerds on the internet. Anita Sarkeesian is perhaps one of the most high-profile feminist nerds, and she frequently brings up topics which either directly or indirectly lead to the conclusion that the media at large needs more fictional women as lead roles/main characters/playable avatars, and more real-world women in creatively powerful positions. These assertions are surprisingly controversial, and Anita, among other public feminist nerds, has faced a pretty severe backlash as a result.

On the writing side of things, close to half of all fantasy titles are written by women according to Slate’s Alex Heimbach, while only about 1/4 of science fiction authors are female.  The more equitable distribution of women writers in fantasy is certainly something to be happy about, and it’s equally pleasing that many of the most successful fantasy writers of the last couple decades have been women (hello, J.K. Rowling). Unfortunately, most of the data will show that there is still a disparity in female representation in general media, particularly when you look at Hollywood writers and female characters. This infographic pretty much speaks for itself:

I’ve been reading feminist philosophy, data and what have you for a long time – I’ve done enough research to firmly establish my opinion that yes, we do need more strong female characters and yes, we do need more women with creative power (and more trans* and non-binary people, for that matter). I’m not saying we should stifle the creativity of males, but merely the position that it would be good for women and people in general if we were better represented both in print and in films. Women in the United States and in many countries all over the world still face a culture which is silently permissive of rape, perpetuates a substantial wage gap (especially if you are both female and a minority), and attacks our reproductive health choices. Portraying strong and capable women in media is one way to push society towards a world where women are viewed with complete parity to their male counterparts.

Ever since I started this journey towards actually publishing works of fiction I’ve had to evaluate my own work from a different perspective. If I’m going to stand up for my beliefs and “be the change,” as it were, it would make sense for me to put a little thought into what kind of change I hope to represent. One conversation in particular brought me to this realization.

Several years ago during an interview for a scholarly position, one of my interviewers noted that I listed “writing” as a hobby. She proceeded to ask me about what I write, so I told her: I was, at the time, working on a novel about a girl named Zikaly –

“Do you always write stories with heroines?” my interviewer interrupted excitedly.

The question caught me off-guard. It seemed a strange thing to ask – almost every story I’ve ever written has included a woman as one of the primary perspectives. It had always been my natural instinct to first write from a comfortable perspective (in this case, a female one) and add on more ambitious perspectives as the story progresses. My characters tended to (and still do) evolve pretty organically, regardless of gender. Gender was something that I typically assigned on reflex, with no conscious intent. It wasn’t until this interview that I realized that these seemingly small creative choices could potentially make a profound impression on my prospective readers.

The way that I approach gender, race and sexuality in my writing has been changing since that encounter as I’ve started to accept that someone else might read what I’ve written. With Tragedy more than any other story, I’ve tried to be as gender- and race-inclusive as I can. I will be the first to admit that I fail at those goals in many ways. My two main characters are pretty light-skinned (though I do describe Teveres as “honey-skinned” because my gods he is delicious). Most of my POV characters, and really most of my characters as a whole, are male. I do have a gay man and a bisexual man in the story, though they are not usually in the spotlight. It might be hubris that I believe I am decent at writing about other genders – and maybe hubris again that I think I can write well for women when I, like so many others, fall into many of the creative traps that are all around me in the media.

All of this leads to my question, and the title of this post: Do I write like a woman? Does my gender make my perspective as an author somehow different from my male counterparts? I’m not sure. I can’t read my book the way you can; what I’ve written will never be new to me. I do know one thing for certain – none of my characters, male or female, will ever willingly enter a fight wearing heels.