Learning to play with my left foot
Plus: San Diego Comic-Con, The Boys, and the writings of Benjamin Percy
Welcome, subscribers old and new! Especially if you joined this past week due to Substack’s recommendation—thank you for offering me the privilege of your inbox! For a reminder of who I am, what this letter is about, and where to start with previous letters, go here.
This month’s essay + recs roundup talks about kicking [myself]. Reading time is 10 minutes.
Many of my readers may not know it, but I’m am avid football fan (that’s soccer to my North American friends). Aside watching the Premier League and supporting Tottenham Hotspur (COYS!), I also play for a seven-a-side recreational league team called Ottawa Wanderers. None of us are professionals or even serious footballers—we play for fun, but take the team seriously. In order to improve my general technique, I recently decided to carry out some personal training. And it turns out my biggest challenge so far is kicking the ball correctly with my left foot.
Many pro players tend to favour one foot, but the expectation is that every player can perform basic actions with their “weaker” foot: control, pass, shoot, cross. So far, my left foot is decent with control and passing, deficient with shooting, poor with crossing. It’s a 50/50 chance of success/failure each time I kick with that foot, meaning I’m prone to mistakes during a game whenever I’m forced to use it.
Now, imagine if I based my whole ability as a footballer on what my left foot can and can’t do. Imagine if I went home kicking myself, saying, “I ain't shit!” because my left-foot passes went astray or I missed open goals. Imagine if I overlooked all the good stuff I can do outside of using my left foot, including positioning, captaining, or scoring with my right foot. Imagine how ridiculous that would be—except it really wouldn’t, because this is exactly what happens whenever I get a case of Writer’s Blues.
Last week I received the editorial letter for my first draft of Warrior of the Wind, and immediately descended into a case of Writer’s Blues. If you don’t know what Writer’s Blues is, think of any moment when, despite all the effort and learning/practice hours you’ve put into something—and achieved significant success as a result—you still feel shitty for not having it all figured out. That, but with writing. It’s like if imposter syndrome and self-deprecation made a baby inside a writer’s head.
The editorial letter wasn’t a scathing one either. Nivia, my editor at Orbit, is largely good-natured and handles editing deftly. The letter contained a ton of praise for the things well done, and balanced that out with notes for what to consider in the next draft. Still, I couldn’t help looking at those four pages and going, “Damn, I ain’t shit.”
Note that I felt this way despite literally sending in the draft with the disclaimer: This is a very rough draft, treat as such. I worked on this book during one of the toughest periods in recent history, and I’m real proud of the output. I’m also one of those writers who’s big on revision, who believes that the rewriting process defines a book just as much as the drafting process does. This is literally the ethos I try to get my students to imbibe, so I shouldn’t be triggered by a few editorial notes, right?
Once your inner critic is trained, though, it’s hard to undo all that training. I usually put editorial notes away immediately after receiving them, and do not look at them until I’m ready (after which I set them aside for another week or two to distance myself and quell the anxiety). But for the WOTW notes, I made the mistake of looking at them before my distancing period, and the notes haunted me throughout the hiatus.
Luckily, I had a couple of football training sessions the next week. It took me one such session to realise that Writer's Blues is no different from feeling shitty about kicking poorly with my “weaker foot” while overlooking, amongst other things, my great right-foot kicking. I also realized that the trick to defeating Writers Blues and left-foot despair was the same: itemize everything that isn’t working (the challenges, problems or “weaknesses”) and assess how much needs to be done to bring things closer to the overall goal.
Once I’m ready to work on an editorial letter, the first thing I do is turn it into a list. Often, the letter is just a lengthy document discussing the “awesomes” and “could-be-betters” of the work. The challenge lies not only in sussing out what one should do to fix the problems and how to fix them, but what exactly the problem is in the first place. (In a previous letter, I discussed using a Challenge-Solution-Action approach to solving this).
First, I highlight every line that tells me what’s not working, whittling them down to simplistic phrases: improve character motive, less exposition, more description. I plug these into an excel sheet, then try to identify what kind of problem each is: Character? Worldbuilding? Plot? Etc. My (simplified) WOTW list looks something like this:
Character/Character Arc issues: 20
Plot/Narrative Arc issues: 12
Worldbuilding issues: 5
Immediately after doing this, my Writer’s Blues began to fade. Not just because I could now put a number to how many solutions/actions I needed to make this book better (37), but because I could also see where the challenges were. It was no longer, “I’m a bad writer,” but “Perhaps I didn’t pay as much attention to character arcs and motives as I usually do.” It was no longer, “I ain't shit,” but “Half my character solutions will address my plot problems.” And best of all, it became clear that the things I do quite well (language, worldbuilding, etc) are still, in fact, being done quite well. Only a couple of specific matters (character, narrative arc), albeit key ones, required attention in this draft.
My right foot was kicking just fine. All I needed was a little left foot love.
This summer season, my football team is at the top of the league table. I’ve played every game, scored a few goals, and have mostly done unglorious work in defensive midfield, the kind that goes largely unnoticed. But our team keeps winning anyway, because even though we all have not-so-great left feet, and have come up against some very talented and challenging opponents, we’ve mostly prospered through actions that did not involve feet at all: tenacity, patience, organization, after-game beers.
This is a lesson I keep learning over and over in this writing game: The physical act of writing is only half the journey to a successful story. The key to a successful writing project could lie in other mundane actions, like making a list out of a letter. It could lie in the podcasts you listen to while biking, the fave video game you play, the comics you read. It could lie in the decision to step away from the desk and return recharged and ready to tackle a challenge again. It could lie in the skills, approaches and traits you pick up and hone without having to go near a keyboard or a pen.
These days, I’m learning to give my left foot a little love. It will probably never be as strong as my right, and that’s okay. I know its limitations, and thus know they don’t define my capabilities. I know how to use it just enough to get the job done and achieve the overall goal—to play football and win, to write good stories, to have fun. The other strengths still exist. My right foot is still there. The team is still winning. The resulting stories are still fun, good, interesting. And that will always be enough.
In Case You Missed It
Son of the Storm is a finalist for the 2022 Nommo Award for Best Novel! The shortlists include other dope authors like Namina Forna, Tade Thompson, TL Huchu, Nnedi Okorafor, Dilman Dila, Oghenechovwe Donald Ekepki, Makena Onjerika, ‘Pemi Aguda, Shingai Njeri Kagunda, Tlotlo Tsamaase, and many more. Voting (for ASFS members) is currently ongoing—if you’re a member, kindly consider my novel!
Where to find me in the coming weeks
In July, I’ll be appearing at my first in-person author events since 2020 (what!?)
Jul 14-17, Saskatchewan Festival of Words. My first trip will be to “Canada’s most notorious city” of Moose Jaw, Sakatchewan for this retreat-cum-festival. I’ll be reading from works published and in progress, as well as sitting on a publishing panel.
Jul 21-24, San Diego Comic-Con: I'm Running Up That Hill to my first comic-con! I’ll be spending Thursday 21st and Friday 22nd promoting Stranger Things: Lucas on the Line with a signing at the Penguin Random House booth (Thursday) and appearances on two panels (Friday). Random House will give away 100 free pre-release copies of Lucas on the Line, so if you’re going to be at SDCC, be sure to show up at the booth, say hi, and grab a free book!
⭐ Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction by Benjamin Percy
If you’ve read or listened to any of my interviews, you’ll know I’ve always been interested in telling stories that cut across various media—books, comics, audio, screen, etc. As a result, I’m always keen on listening to those who do exactly that. I came across Ben Percy after listening to his work with Marvel on Wolverine: The Long Night and Wolverine: The Lost Trail (still one of the best fiction podcasts out there). Since then, I’ve been interested in how Percy approaches storytelling, and this book of essays on writing fiction gives us a peek into his mind.
I love that Percy thinks of storytelling the same way I do: by rejecting the false binaries and dichotomies resident in globally dominant aphorisms about writing, like show, don’t tell or literary vs genre or other such not-quite-always-true writing advice. Instead, we get deep-dives into staging set-piece scenes, writing violence, designing suspense, making the extraordinary ordinary, meaningful repetition, revision as renovation, etc. It’s a powerhouse in a little book of only 171 pages, and deserves a space in every emerging or veteran writer’s library.
🌐 On the interwebs
Kaushika Suresh, assessing brownness and multiculture in “Examination”
⭐ The Boys, Season 3
This show swings me like a pendulum. One moment, I’m frowning at the intense amount of gratuitous violence and gore on screen, the next I’m guffawing at the manner in which they poke fun at a collection of America’s -isms. I’m aware the show is dipped in a hypermasculine ethos, but if you can manage to get past that and arrive at the social commentary, everything from The Deep’s brush with a fictionalized Church of Scientology and A-Train’s rendition of the Kendall Jenner 2017 Pepsi ad is bound to get you thinking. After peering at Homelander, Stormfront and Soldier Boy through the hypercapitalist, consumerist, white supremacist and populist lenses the show offers, I dare you to look at Superman and Captain America the same way again.
(Also, if anything happens to Frenchie and Kimiko, I will riot! Mon Coeur est la vie!)
⭐ Derry Girls (final season) and ⭐ Some Girls (2012-2014)
On the other end of the gender-titled TV spectrum (and on the other side of the Atlantic), Derry Girls has just come to a close. Can’t say I won’t miss Erin’s faux facetiousness, Michelle’s f-bombs, Clare’s high-pitched anxiety, Orla’s aloofness and James’s resignation. And its not just the teenage hijinks either. I attribute to this show, my knowledge of why the Northern Ireland is part of the UK but the Republic of Ireland is not, and why folks from Belfast and Dublin might not see eye-to-eye, even if both are Irish.
Following my post-Derry-Girls hangover, I went in search of similar British teen comedies (that are not Skins or The Inbetweeners) and unearthed Some Girls from the annals of my Roku library. Different from Derry Girls in many ways (this follows teen girls from a London council estate) but for a show that debuted in 2012, Some Girls makes surprisingly good choices. It’s not everyday you see a mainstream teen show from 12 years ago being headlined by a dark-skinned teenager, with a pop-rock soundtrack by a Black artist, and storylines that mix teenage drama with level-headed advice.
Meet Cute Audio Stories
This “original romantic comedies told in 15 minutes” podcast has become my companion when I’m on late-night infant duty. It’s a diverse library of short serial and one-shot rom-coms, with diverse being the operative word here—it trades in a spectrum of romantic stories. While a few episodes seem standard fare, many make interesting choices of actor, character, action or approach, and take interesting turns. Perfect for fans of romance-tinged stories of all kinds.
This recently-purchased bad boy!
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