Monthly Archives: January 2015

An Idea is Born


The stream of consciousness prompt this week is “scene/seen”, and that feels like kismet. Because if you’ve spent any time around my blarg, you know that one of the things that’s been front-of-mind for me over the last year or so is my novel. And I think so much about what the novel is and what it may yet be that it’s easy to forget what it once was, which was a dumb little scene I wrote for a playwriting class I took in my fourth year at UGA. I say dumb not because I thought that scene was bad (though if I read it again I might have to reconsider that assessment), but because I wrote it almost as a throwaway. We’d been in the class for maybe three weeks, were still learning the ropes, and this assignment was an easy one to get us thinking outside of the box a bit.

“Have a character enter your scene from somewhere unexpected.”

Were you to give me that prompt now, I’d have a hard time deciding which outlandish entrance to use. I’d have somebody come crashing through the window or the ceiling. I’d have an escaped prisoner tunnel up through somebody’s living room floor. I’d have a reincarnated Elvis enter from the bathroom in a cloud of psychedelic lights and smoke. (Okay, so I stole that Elvis entrance from Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile). The problem would not be “how do I write this scene,” the problem would be “how do I choose?”

But at the time, the prompt stymied me. It wasn’t that I couldn’t think of strange entrances — I could — but I couldn’t think of a way to justify any of them. The idea would strike, but I wouldn’t know how to connect it to anything meaningful. Even as I write that, I find myself shaking my head — it was just an exercise scene, it didn’t have to connect to anything meaningful! — but I was stuck. Stuck, stuck, stuck. I sat in front of my computer staring at a blank page for the better part of an hour, unable to write this scene, too nervous to take a chance.

typewriter

The one piece of writing advice that everybody knows is to write what you know. Frustrated with the assignment and my inability to pen even a single word, I fell back on that old axiom. I’m blocked? Can’t crack this scene? Fargo it. And I wrote my character, a frazzled, frustrated guy, sitting white-knuckled and scruff-faced obstinately in front of a typewriter. (Yeah, yeah, I know, I have a thing about typewriters.) I had him struggle and hem and haw and make excuses and bang his head against the wall, and then, finally, he just gave up trying to be creative and wrote a crappy, cliched little scene. Nothing special about it. Except that it appeared out of nowhere (the unexpected entrance, such as it was) and played out right in front of him. Taken aback at first, he spoke to the characters that suddenly existed right there in his crappy apartment. The newly created characters shared their thoughts (this setting sucks! I would never read that book! Why would I even say that to her?), he took their advice, and in a matter of moments he had figured out that the best way to write was to get the fargo out of the way and allow the characters to explore their own situation.

I thought it was crap. I mean, really, I was almost ashamed of it. So ashamed that I almost didn’t go to class the next day. But crappy though it was, I had enjoyed the taste of writing it, so I went. Naturally, the teacher (the inimitable Stanley Longman) called on me as one of the first to present. With sheepish disclaimers, I handed copies of the scene to three of my classmates, who took a few minutes to read over it before assuming positions on the stage. I heard them giggling as they ran through it and thought, great, it’s as terrible as I feared and now I’m going to be exposed for a hack. Then they read the scene, and the laughter continued; little snickers here and there, even a stray guffaw. Finished, the actors took their seats and I sat on the feedback stool, red-faced in front of everybody, and waited to be verbally crucified.

First hand raised, I called on a girl whose name I didn’t know at the front of the room. I’m paraphrasing, of course: “First of all, it was really funny. I loved the interplay between what we expected from his characters and what they really wanted for themselves.” Nods from around the room. Next up, a guy who sat near me and whom I’d collaborated with on an earlier exercise. “I recognize that struggle when I write,” he said, “it was cool to actually see it on stage. And it worked.”

The workshop continued. I got critical feedback as well as praise. But my professor’s comment stuck with me more than any of the rest. He scratched his head and spread his hands like a big grandfather gorilla. “The concept needs a little work, just to polish up the how-is-all-this-happening, and the why. An audience wants that. But it’s funny, you’ve nailed that. Those comedic elements are the hardest to pin down, and you’ve done it. Don’t you think?” He inclined his head past me toward the class, and there were vigorous nods of assent. He chuckled. “I loved it.”

That class was my favorite experience in my undergraduate years. Much though I loved that class, I got distracted from that scene and didn’t think about it for a few years. When I graduated and moved back home, I had the opportunity to work with my old high school and ended up taking the core concept of that scene — an author at war with his characters — and expanding it into a full length production. It went over like gangbusters, and, shock of all shocks, it played a role in my meeting with my wife (her mother saw the show, knew me from my work with a community theatre, and kinda-sorta shoved her in my direction).

Now, eight years later, that stage play is becoming a novel. And I feel the same fears in its formation that I felt in those days struggling with that seedling of a scene: that it’s contrived, that it won’t be funny, that it’s ultimately utter crap. But somehow, this time around, I’m not nearly so fearful as I was. Maybe it’s that I’m older and jaded and I don’t care what people think like I used to. Maybe it’s because I’m more confident now than I was then in the concept and my ability. Maybe it’s because I’m older and losing touch with reality and don’t know well enough to be properly nervous. Whatever the reason, it’s a nice reminder to myself that I’ve had success with this story once, and there’s no reason why it couldn’t happen again.

This post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday.

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Just Junk


In keeping with my realization and resolution yesterday (not a New Year’s Resolution, just a regular old un-arbitrarily-linked-to-meaningless-space-time-data resolution), I attacked the edit hard today. Lots of parsing, lots of tidying, lots of trimming and sweeping, but no reconstructive surgery. And I was flying. I got through twenty pages, wrote several new paragraphs that needed inserting and deleted a handful that were just cluttering up the joint. Twenty pages in a day!

And as I always do when I’m reading over my own writing, I realized another thing. My prose is lousy with junk language.

It’s a first draft, so I’m not mad at myself, but it was still shocking to see how much I lean on empty modifiers and redundant qualifiers. Prime example? Just.

Not just as in right, but just as in only just. This is a word that’s practically invisible to me in speech — I knew that already — but in my writing, it flows out just as invisibly (see? Just there. AND AGAIN.) To be honest, I didn’t even spot it until I was thirty minutes into my work, and then only because just appeared twice in the same sentence. I’d carelessly used it twice by mistake, but the sudden jolt of reading it twice gave me pause. Then I pondered.

An invaluable tool during the edit has been the “find” feature. I can search for swear words (which need editing out), chapter titles (to track down errant plotlines and quickly navigate the document), and goofy little symbols I’ve thrown in to mark trouble spots. It’s a great tool for making quick work of pervasive problems and finding my way around, but today it found a new task: Seek and destroy.

“Just” went into the finder. Actually, “just ” with a space went into the finder, to weed out any fancy words like justice or justified or Justin (all Justins should be removed from all books, just on principle, but that’s a topic for another post). The result? I had written “just” into the book 358 times. The number as a number doesn’t do itself justice. That’s three hundred, fifty eight times I used the word “just” as a modifier in the course of a book that’s 175 pages in Word. Two per page.

An epidemic.

Out came the scissors and the “just”s began falling to the ground like my hair, back when I used to have enough hair to necessitate going in for haircuts. Fifty of them got cut with no other modification to the lines they appeared in, another fifty got removed with minor modification, and the other two hundred fifty are slated for summary destruction tomorrow. Now, don’t get me wrong. Adverbs have their place. But for me, this junk language is as obvious a crutch as you could hope to see.

I usually like to dig below the surface and make extra meaning out of my issues, but there’s nothing extra in this one. There’s something to be said for conversational tone here on the blarg and in, y’know, conversation. But that junk language creeping into “proper” writing is bad news, and I have a feeling that much like roaches in your kitchen, there are a hundred hiding in the walls for every one that you see in the open.


Too Much Think


There comes a point all things significant in my life wherein I find myself thinking way too much. I thought too much about marrying my wife, about buying our first house, about having kids… and I am definitely thinking too much about the edit of my novel.

I started out, if anything, not thinking enough. Not really wanting to tackle the tough choices, not really wanting to rejigger the narrative, not really willing to tear out the skeleton of the thing to make the changes that are necessary. But it grew on me, and I started to realize that not only are there tough choices to make, but that I often needed to take the harder of the two paths for fixing the problems in the story. And I started hunting down the problems in the narrative like  Indiana Jones seeking golden idols in the depths of Mayan temples. Each new problem solved gave rise to another, bigger conflict I could fix. Each prospective fix, not necessarily right for this situation, took on new significance, grew wings and started looking for problems to apply itself to. And then, a little stymied after a hectic work week, I threw myself at the edit again yesterday and spotted a white whale just lazing about below the surface of the waves on the horizon. A prize so massive, catching her and bringing her in could alter the trajectory of the narrative like a moonshot. It was a job too big for a single day, so I put it on the EPOS and marinated on it overnight.

And I realized something. Drafts of a story are like prototypes before a product launch. None of them is perfect, but each one gets polished to a point where it at least looks and functions more or less as intended. There may still be bugs on the inside, but to an outside observer, it looks like a complete thing. And my edit of this story resembles not so much a prototype as a cluttered workshop after a hurricane and a flash flood. The narrative is in pieces. Loose ends like frayed wires are protruding out of the armholes, eye sockets, fingertips. Entire limbs of the story are disjointedly stuck on with duct tape while other vestigial bits are still cluttering the margins like piles of unswept sawdust.

I’ve been so focused on fixing every little problem along the way that I never bothered to stop, clean up, and see if the thing as a whole is still working as intended. There’s been so much thought about making this little thing fit into its niche that I’m not paying attention to the fact that I’ve stitched an alligator arm onto a panda bear torso. I fear that there’s been so little big picture focus that I’ve created a Frankenstein’s Monster doomed to self-destruct in a boiling froth of unresolved plots and half-baked new characters. In short: I fear that I’ve somehow managed to make this second draft worse than the first.

But you know what? Maybe it is, and maybe that’s okay. If nothing else, it’s time to stop making huge conceptual changes, clean up the dust and debris, and see if this thing can even stand on its own two feet. The first draft did. It was shaky, but it stood up. This second draft? I honestly have no idea. I think it will, but I haven’t tested it properly with a read-through to see.

So it’s time to stop thinking so much. Time to stop trying to fix everything and start making sure that the fixes I’ve made already actually work. Which means no more breaking the story into pieces. No more new characters. No DELETING existing characters. No more rearranging story elements. I need less chainsaw, more chisel. Less dynamite, more sander. Time to sweep up the workshop, put the tools away, and just sit and have another good look at this thing I’ve built. Get a second opinion. Take a bird’s-eye view of the whole scenario.

And then, you know, with fresh perspective, maybe it’ll be time to lop its arms off.


A Little Trim


I can’t be trusted with my own story.

In making a last push to work on the edit, I found myself thinking some truly troubling thoughts. In the past month, I’ve struggled through editing an entirely new character into the innards of the story, and doing so required some deft slices of the scalpel and some not-so-deft whacks of the axe to make room for. And now, like a maniac who’s tasted blood and now needs to slice open jugulars nightly just to feel some semblance of normal, I find myself eyeing that axe again and thinking… I could cut more.

Just a little more. Shave a little off the top. Clip the ends off, neaten this bit out. Trim the dead weight. Sure, the novel as a whole could probably use more trimming, but that’s not what I’m talking about. No, what’s caught my eye is a prize hog. One of the supporting characters looks positively ripe for harvesting.

I had this thought in the first stages of the edit, regarding another one of the supporting cast, but I didn’t pull the trigger. Couldn’t bring myself to wipe her out. Maybe because I was too cowardly to axe a major part of the work, maybe because I didn’t have the confidence to pull it off. For some reason, now, though, I find myself weighing the decision and seriously thinking it over… not because I feel the character needs to go — she’s been a part of the story since the first iterations, back when it was a stage play. No, I’m sizing her up like she’s some challenge, like that ancient fish lurking in the depths of the pond, the twisted ends of dozens of anglers’ hooks adorning its lip. I could cut her out like she never existed, I think… which, as Criminal Minds plays in the background here while I sit on the couch with my wife, sounds like an extraordinarily psychotic thing to say.

No, I think this is more editing loopiness setting in. Cabin fever is snaking its slimy tendrils up my spine after all the time I’ve spent with this story and it’s making me hallucinate. Making me think I see blood pooling behind her eyes, a dead albatross around her neck. She’s probably not so much cursed as I am looking for ways to drastically improve this story amidst my fears that it’s utter crap.

She’ll live, for now.

But I need to keep making progress, finish this edit, and get this thing off to some impartial readers. That axe is looking awfully sharp and awfully inviting.


Page-Turner


Chuck’s challenge this week: Must Contain 3 Things. My three things: Library, Survival, War.

Ever gotten totally lost in a really good book? So did Elloree. Her story is below.

Page-Turner

In the flickering light of her dying candle, Elloree resembled nothing so much as a praying mantis in smudged plaid and oversized glasses. Her spindly fingers tracked like machines across the typeface, barreling toward the bottom of the page, then flicked it over with robotic efficiency. Her radiant eyes bounced from side to side as they drank in the words like so much water down the throat of a man dying of thirst. Her papery lips alternately pursed with puzzlement or curled up with satisfaction or opened just slightly to gasp with surprise. In a matter of moments, she had finished the book and tossed it on the pile of its brethren; another stripped-down carcass added to a growing pile of bones.

She rose, dusted her knees, and ghosted her way through the aisles. They towered over her diminutive frame like guardians, shielding her from the crimson light streaming through the windows, the streaked and scorched sunlight invading her fortress as it did for only a few times every day. She floated through fiction, bandied around the biographies, and reveled past the reference section, landing at last in her favorite section: Romance. She picked out a thick volume with a strapping bare-chested man on its cover and hummed dreamily to herself as she carried it back to her nest.

******

Rast’s shrill whistle pierced the evening, and Nell lifted her gaze from her bedraggled footsteps.

“Up ahead,” Rast whispered, as if afraid of breaking the dusty silence. “See it?”

She did. And as it always did when they approached another town, her throat tightened. Most likely it was just full of more of the same: smoldering corpses, shattered buildings, the haunting echoes of an entire community’s tortured final moments lingering in the air like poison. Occasionally, despite all the festering death, there would be some supplies. It had to be risked.

Nell straightened her pack on her shoulders, brushed an errant strand of soot-smeared hair from her face. “Let’s go.”

******

The sun was almost down, but Elloree hardly noticed. She never did, as the sunset looked the same as sunrise and much of the rest of the day. With the never-breaking columns of acrid black clouds streaming overhead, only an occasional ray of burning light would streak through, and then only briefly. The rest was darkness and smoke, and her candle was guttering. She lit another and continued her story.

******

The extermination here had been methodical and absolute. The roads were pulverized and difficult to walk on; Rast and Nell found their footing much more easily several feet off the road in the mud and weeds. The buildings were hollowed and skeletal, their shells weird misshapen silhouettes against the fading red light. No food. No survivors. Nothing left.

“Sun’s down soon,” Nell said. “Time to go.” She hated making camp in towns; you never knew when a sentry would pass over. They were better off when they could find a copse of trees or a rampant untended cornfield. But Rast wasn’t listening. He was squinting against the fading light, his three-fingered hand needlessly visoring out the sun. “There’s a light.”

“Don’t be stupid. I don’t want to get caught out here.”

“Nell. That building. Over there. It’s intact.” he pointed with his five-fingered hand. “And there’s a light in its window.”

Nell sighed and humored Rast with a look. He was daft as a post, but loyal, and he tried to help, bless him. He was also absolutely right.

The Septids razed every building they declared “tactically useful,” which included food storage, weapons repositories, residences, schools, churches, and offices. Occasionally you’d find a squat untouched, a shed or a low-slung warehouse. This building was small — probably too small to hold anything useful — but it was also definitely illuminated from within. Not by much. A light too faint to be mistaken for anything other than the reflected glow from the scorched sun burned at one window at the nearest corner. But that one window glowed while the others were dark. Rast’s sharp eyes had picked out something useful after all.

She turned to him and nodded, drawing her pistol. “Quietly.”

******

The cracked and smoke-stained door opened soundlessly as Rast leaned into it, and on practiced, stealthy footsteps, they stole into the wide open space.

A library.

For a moment, Nell simply gaped. She couldn’t believe the building was so intact, but it didn’t take long to figure out why. Books had long ago gone obsolete. They’d been digitized and collected into virtual storage, which was easier to police and took up less space. Most libraries had been decommissioned, but in some outlying towns it hadn’t been finished before the overthrow. And here they were, in a library.

With somebody else. At the end of the room, a shuffling of feet, a clatter of books. They edged around the shelves and aimed their guns at the tiny girl hunched over a novel in front of a ludicrous pile of books. Her eyes peered at them curiously through the thick lenses of her glasses.

She blinked at them, and they at her, for a few tense moments.

“How are you alive?” Nell finally asked.

Elloree shrugged.

“How long have you been here?”

She shrugged again.

The girl seemed so carefree, so unimpressed by them. Nell felt foolish. “How did you survive the war?” She demanded, her voice growing shrill.

“The war?”

Rast giggled foolishly. Nell scowled. “The war,” she explained, “that wiped out most of humanity. The war,” she continued, “that destroyed this town. The war,” she finished, “that somehow left you untouched. You didn’t know?!”

Elloree shrugged, looking a little sheepish. “It’s just… well… I’ve been reading.”

Rast began cackling. “Bookworm read right through the end of the world!”

“It’s just,” Elloree said, “that they were really good books.”


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