Category Archives: writing about writing

The Sprout is a Better Writer than Me, These Days


We gave my son a journal about a year ago on his birthday.

He was all excited about it at first, used it a couple of times, and then didn’t do a thing with it for months. No big deal, add it to the piles of toys we get for the kids that suffer the same fate — new, shiny, all-consuming, then forgotten and cluttering up the house and in the way.

Then, earlier this week, the sprout comes to me and asks if I want to read something he wrote in his journal.

Uh, yes, obviously.

“You can’t read the whole thing, dad. Some of it is private. But I want you to read this one.”

The whole thing, eh?

So, I read it. And it was fine. The kid, at nine, has an eye for detail and a straightforward style that, while it’s not exactly compulsory reading, it’s at least as engaging as you could hope for from somebody his age.

But of course, I did what I wasn’t supposed to do. I flipped through some of the other pages. Not to read, you understand, but just to see what the kid has been up to. And he’s filled pages and pages with this stuff, some of it absolute fluff, some of it screeds about how angry his little sister makes him (how much can really be said on the subject? You might ask. Quite a bit, as it turns out), some of it pure creative whimsy. His little journal is over half full, and he’s using it more and more by the day.

And it’s endearing, for pretty obvious reasons, but it’s humbling, too. Here goes a kid of nine years just writing for the pure unmitigated hell of it, and meanwhile I, who fancy myself a writer, have been scared of my own shadow in that department for the better part of a year.

Which is not to say I haven’t been writing in that time. I processed some more edits on the novel I may never finish. I still write (almost) every day in a dusty WriteMonkey file that will never see the light of day. But it has been ….quite some time since I wrote anything outward-facing. (Check the date-stamp of my last blog entry here for proof. (This is a thing I personally will not be doing!))

“Scared of my own shadow” is pretty apt for just now having thought of it that way. And I don’t have a good reason; in fact anything I could say would sound like the antithesis of everything that the oeuvre of this blog seems to espouse. (Don’t feel like it? Do it anyway. Feel like it’s dumb? Do it anyway. Not confident? Cry more, and do it anyway.) I am my own best cheerleader, and my own most crushing disappointment. But at the same time, I can’t just turn off the notions that what I write is trite, or overwrought, or uninformed, or just plain bad.

But if a nine-year-old can do it…

I don’t know what it is, but lately I’ve had to deal with plumbing issues a lot. Leaks here, blockages there. And like … the thing with plumbing is, if it’s not catastrophic, it’s easy to ignore. But by their very nature, plumbing problems don’t get better with time; they get worse. The drip becomes a trickle becomes a gusher. The slow drain gets slower until it stops entirely. And how much time and resources do you waste while ignoring the problem? How much annoyance and frustration do you choose to deal with on a daily basis just to avoid the unpleasantry of doing the work to fix it?

And how much better would things be on the other side of doing that work?

Anyway, all this metaphor is just a pretty way of saying I have allowed my slow drain to become a clog and then a full-blown impacted blockage. Which is not a great place to be, but you can’t get anywhere, no matter how good your maps and your skills may be, if you don’t know where you are.

The other thing about plumbing is, the only way to fix it — really fix it — is to take drastic measures. Empty out the space under the sink, disconnect the pipes and snake ’em out. Tear out the toilet that won’t stop leaking and put in a new one.

Or to put it in more general terms, if you want the situation to change, you have to get off your arse and change it.

What does this mean for this site?

I dunno yet.

But I’m at least going to stop treating this blog like the mad woman in the attic (we feed her, but we don’t talk about her).

See you soon.


The Importance of Something


Writing advice!

It’s mostly garbage. It’s almost always situational. What works for one may not work for another. These things are known.

But I want to remind myself, and all of us involved in these creative endeavors, of one of my favorite aphorisms: “Inspiration exists, but it has to catch you working.”

Inspiration!

It’s this wonderful, terrible, magic, not-magic thing. In that it feels like magic, but somehow it only seems to show its face when you’re already working. The work creates the inspiration, and then the fleeting sparks of inspiration set the work on fire.

If you’re not putting words on the page (or paint on the canvas or whatever choose-your-metaphor), then the words have nowhere to go even if your brain has one of those legendary waves. And the best way to push through a problem in your story is often to just keep writing, keep giving the characters something to do, keep flinging their bodies against the wall until you pile up enough pieces to step over.

And that’s true! Grinding away at your story is the only way to get through it.

But the funny thing is, inspiration doesn’t care what you’re working on. Inspiration strikes when it strikes and it says what it says and it says no more, and it won’t be forced and it won’t be guided.

And the funny thing is, sometimes it strikes in ways that are not immediately useful. Case-in-point: today I’m grinding out edits for my superhero story and bang, crash, the lightning flashes and provides me with the answer to a problem that had my other story thoroughly and entirely mud-stuck. And because I was sitting at the computer anyway, working on the first story, it was easy for me to tab over, write out some notes on the other idea so it didn’t flitter away into the screaming chasm of my inadequate brain to be forgot forever, and get back to what I needed to be working on.

Which is to say that when you’re not feeling the inspiration, you have to work on something Do something, anything to keep the juices flowing and the soil fertile, because you have no way to know when the lightning is going to strike.
But you darn sure want to be ready when it does.


Metaphor Monday: The Fly


No, not the 80’s Jeff Goldblum flick, although I could certainly write at length about that one. Talk about scaring the hell out of a kid. I could never look at donuts the same way.

Today’s thought is much more pedestrian than all that, though hardly pedestrian! (Because flies, right? They fly!) Because Mother Nature is apparently just as upside-down and backwards as our wayward country these days, the seasons have reversed themselves and it’s pushing 80 in November for about the third day in a row. Some plants in the yard seem to be blooming again, thinking that Spring has sprung anew, while others haven’t yet finished decomposing from last week’s cold snap. And the bugs are back. Snapped out of hibernation or their winter larval stage or wherever the hell bugs go during the COLD TIMES.

Specifically, a fly flew (it’s hard to communicate how much internal strife I suffered writing such a banal obviosity as “the fly flew”, but there’s not really a better or simpler way to say it, and yeah, obviosity is probably not a word that Merriam or Webster would agree with, but it fits the flavor of the moment for me) into the house a few days ago, and it shows no signs of leaving. It shows interest in leaving, make no mistake. It hurls itself against every window pane, every crook and seam leading to the outdoors that it can find with its millions of tiny fly eyes (that’s flies, right? Millions of eyes? Or did I somehow splice Lovecraft into my memories of intro Biology?). Every apparent egress, that is, this fly bashes up against, again and again, with that strange but unmistakable sound. (zzzzzzzzzzRT zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzRT zzzzRT zzzRT). Every exit, that is, except whichever one it exploited to get inside.

Usually we don’t have to think much about flies. We have four cats in the house, after all, and there’s always at least one of them in a sporting mood, so on the odd chance that a critter, bugger, or somesuch finds its way inside, it doesn’t tend to last very long. But the cats, it seems, have fallen into a faux-winter doldrums themselves, and none of them are interested in bringing down this interloper.

So it buzzes around the house. Buzzing around my head while I fix breakfast. Buzzing just behind the couch while we watch TV. Buzzing under my pillow while I sleep. Buzzing in my brain while I dream. The kind of constant buzzing that you can ignore until the little guy in your brain pipes up, “hey, you’ve been ignoring that fly for a while, and it’s still buzzing around. Don’t flies sleep? Is this, like, the Superman of flies? The SuperFly?” And then you start to obsess. Well, maybe you don’t. I do. Now, when I go home, I’m listening for the little bastard to start buzzing so I can open a door or window for him, or take a swing at him, or throw a cat at him, or SOMETHING to make the buzzing stop.

Of course, the fly doesn’t care about my aversion to his buzzing (unless it’s one of those government-controlled feeding-on-psychic-discord spy-flies, which you know are a thing). And it certainly doesn’t care about actually leaving the house anymore, that’s plain. What it cares about now are the simple things in life. Buzzing at me right after I’ve just sat down and don’t want to get up and chase it around the house. Flying really close to my ear and darting away before I can smack it. Lighting on my sock-clad foot just out of swatting range and just sitting there for a really, really long time. Clattering away in a window on the far side of the room and flitting away to tango with the ceiling fan when I try to open said window.

I haven’t dealt with the fly directly yet — by which I mean, putting on a fire-proof jumpsuit and pursuing it through the house with a lighter and a can of hair spray — because it hasn’t been important enough to me to do so, yet. Taking actual time out of my day is not a thing I’ve yet allowed this fly to move me to do. Just not worth the time.

Yet here I sit, writing about the fly when I could be writing about something more productive.

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Which is where the fly becomes a metaphor. (Did you forget it was metaphor Monday? I forgive you, it’s Tuesday after all.)

The fly is that little idea that gets into your head. You know the one. The one that just sort of nags at the back of your brain while you’re thinking about other stuff, or absentmindedly paying your bills, or wondering what to have for dinner. You distantly hear it banging away at your subconscious, but you don’t want to have to actually deal with it. Maybe the cats will get to it and I won’t have to, you perhaps think. Or — survival of the fittest and all — it found its way in here, so it can find its own way out. Or it’ll eventually starve or cook itself to death in a window: problem solved.

And most of the time? It usually will work itself out. But sometimes it won’t. Sometimes the fly gets stuck in the house and it won’t shut up and it won’t go away until you hunt it down and squash it (or set it on fire, idk how you deal with flies). Sometimes that idea gets into your head and it won’t shut up and it won’t go away until you actually sit down and think about it, hear what it has to say, and deal with the reality that you’re stuck with this thing.

Sometimes that idea is a brand new story that you’ve been secretly dying to tell, and you just didn’t know it. Sometimes it’s a hard truth you’ve been denying yourself. Sometimes it’s that perfect comeback that you could never come up with in the moment (the jerk store called…).

Whatever it is, if it’s stuck in your head and it won’t go away and won’t let you focus on what you’re trying to focus on, there may just be a reason for that, and maybe you need to stop ignoring that little buzz and see what it has to say.

Because something’s been bugging me (I’m sorry). My current project, which is to say, the edit that I started almost a full year ago, is in the ditch. Has been for a while. Maybe it’s the summer move, maybe it’s just lost some of its luster, but it’s only barely creeping along if anything, and I can’t even make myself want to work on it. Muscling through isn’t working, putting my head down and grinding it out ain’t gonna do it. Not right now. The fly in my head is that this isn’t the right project for me right now. I’ve been ignoring that thought and hoping it’ll go away, but it’s clearly going nowhere, so it’s time to face facts.

Maybe I’ll come back to this project. Maybe I won’t. I hear authors of all stripes do this all the time, but it feels like a knife in the gut. The better part of a year to draft it, and over six months again trying to edit it… the sheer amount of time wasted is soul-crushing.

But as the great Kenny Rogers once said, you got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em.

And right now, it feels like time to fold this one, open the windows, and let this house air out a little bit.

 


MudStuck


I was out for a run once, and it had been raining in the days before. The sun had been out for a day in between the rain and my run, so most of the ground was relatively dry; even the dirt patches had baked and packed down solid. There were still deep standing puddles here and there at low points in the road, but they were obvious and easy to avoid.

The day was gorgeous; clean spring air, soft breeze, shade from the verdant, rain-thickened trees. The kind of run that makes you feel alive and calm… you know, all that hippy-dippy crap that I usually try to write away from. I had gone a couple of miles, completed a neat loop through a well-marked part of the trail, and was about half a mile away from the trailhead and my car. I had expected to get muddy from stomping through the elements so soon after a rain, but surprisingly, I had stayed relatively clean. I relaxed into the last mile, putting on a little speed and feeling the wind on my face as I streamed along the shaded path.

KASPLORCK-CCCHHHHHHHHHUUUUUUUPP.

A mud pit, cleverly disguised as a perfectly ordinary patch of dirt, had engulfed my shoe and yanked it unsanctimoniously off my foot. Through some miracle of physics I retained my balance and didn’t pitch over on my face; then I had to hop on one foot to circle around and look at what had happened. I’d plunged my right foot into mud six inches deep, and once ensconced, the suction was great enough to remove my entire shoe. There it sat, inches below the surface of the mud, sunk in a perfectly fitted crater with mushroomed edges, slowly beginning to fill with muddy water from the surface. I bent to try and yank it out, but with only one leg underneath me I couldn’t manage enough leverage to dislodge it. There were only two options — sink my unshod foot into the mud to establish leverage to pull the shoe out, or try to worm my foot back into the shoe and unstick it that way. Both choices would leave me with a horrific muddy mess on my foot, not to mention that the shoe was already past done.

I was beyond frustrated, and after the fact, I would realize that there was not a single good reason for the frustration. I had set out for the run knowing that the trail was likely to be a muddy mess. Had I hit the mudhole at the beginning of the run, it would have fazed me not a tick. The problem was, I made it through the run nearly unscathed, clean enough to let my guard down and start imagining a future where I wouldn’t have to stumble in the door and leave my laundry to dry on the porch before I could even step foot inside the house. Timing, I suppose, is everything.

Okay, so, this is an allegory, right? The through-line of this blog is and always has been my writing project. There’s a healthy dose of side business in the flavor of my kids, running, stupid stuff I see on TV, and what-have-you, but really, it’s all about the writing, all about the book, and that’s never more true than now. I was — am — will be — this close to finishing the first edit of this book. I can see the finish line, taste the clean air on the other side, feel the grass growing softer underfoot.

And all of a sudden, a mudhole yawns open beneath my foot and swallows my shoe.

In short: there’s a character in this piece. A character I like a lot. A character who’s critical to the early stages of the story but not quite so critical to the end. And due to that duality, some poor notetaking, and, I’ll admit it, a pretty glaring oversight, this character has turned into the Gordian Knot of the book. The problem? In one scene she’s there, helping to drive events and throwing down obstacles of her own; the next, she’s not. She’s simply gone. Like I totally forgot to write any sort of resolution, or anything even close to resembling a resolution for her.

And I’m stuck. I don’t know what to do. I made it through the whole muddy trek of this edit — even undertaking some fairly major changes to the story — without getting particularly dirty. Nothing I couldn’t hose off with a stout drink and a hot shower. But I don’t know how to fix this, and I can’t picture a future in which it’s fixed. Back up and write her out of the narrative completely? I fear the story will collapse in on itself like a matchstick house, and I’ll have to rebuild it piece by painstaking piece. Forge ahead and cram her back into the final third? The can of sardines will burst, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get all those tiny, stinky fish back into the tin.

I don’t see a way to fix this without diving in and getting myself covered head to toe with the inkstains of major narrative surgery. And I was so close.

There’s a third option, of course, just as there was a third option with my mudbound shoe. Leave it, and hobble home in my socks. Just forget about it and hope that my readers do the same. (Not likely.) Or, pile this and all the other little nitpicky problems the story has sprouted into a neat little pyre and nuke the whole mess from orbit. Leave no survivors. Take it back to the blank space.

Okay, so there’s really not a third option.

So if the blog has been a little sparse lately (and let’s face it, it has been), this is why. I’m stuck.

That’s not an excuse. I’ll find a way around. I didn’t come this far to shamble home with my shoe left in the mud. But it’s a problem I need to solve before I can really feel comfortable in my writing again.


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