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.

The Neverending Edit

A couple of good (read: productive) days of editing the novel have got me feeling, well, productive about my time off from work thus far, but they also have me mired in doubt. I feel kind of like the horse… was it Artex? … from The Neverending Story, who wandered into the swamp of sadness or whatever and finally got so depressed and full of doubt that he was unable to move and just sank into the depths with hardly a whimper. (By the way, what the hell? Who puts something like that in a movie ostensibly for children? Let’s just have this horse — beloved by one of the main characters of the film — just fargoing give up on life. That won’t scar the children in the audience forever. Come to think of it, that movie as a whole is actually pretty bleak. The entire story world gets sucked up into The Nothing? This vast, invisible, intractable force? Okay, let me un-digress…)

Yeah. Mired. I feel like the leg of the edit I’m working on is a solid one, one that does good things for the story, but I’m afraid that I’m doing it all wrong, and as a result, I’m afraid to take much further action. Fearful of breaking the thing further. Fearful that I’ve sunk in dozens of hours working in the wrong direction. Which is probably why I’ve been hiding from the novel behind all those excuses for the past couple weeks.

But we all know that the only thing hiding accomplishes is wasted time, and running from the inevitable means you only die tired. No, the thing to do is to lean into the skid, embrace the suck, power through the rest of this edit, and brace myself for the feedback to come. Because I’m pretty sure that, after I can get all the sprockets and gizmos stuffed back into the chest cavity and do one more polishing pass, I’m going to send it out to some readers and solicit some feedback from a mind that isn’t mine.

And, boy, oh, boy. That was an idea I had pretty much already decided upon in my head, but actually giving voice to it and putting it in writing fills me with an entirely new sense of dread. For all that I think I’m telling a good story, that I think it works and will resonate with audiences, I simply can’t know.

A metaphor that gets tossed around in my life as a teacher is that “we jump out of the plane and build our parachute on the way down,” which always gets a few laughs but is really a horrible way to approach education. The metaphor is apt, though, for the writing world, I think. I just have to trust that this parachute I’m building won’t be shredded like my confidence when I finally unfurl the thing.

Trying for a short story by the end of the week, but outside of that, I may give myself a few days off from the blarg. All the cool kids are doing it, and there is a lot of action for our family (families) at Christmas. So, you know. This might be my last entry for a few days. Unless it isn’t.

Late-night indecision is fun!

Also, look at the lame-o who calls 10:30 late-night! What a sap!

Minor Adjustments, Major Damage

There you are, elbows deep in the carcass of your precious draft, its viscera laid bare before you, your sterile gown smeared with its blood. You look over at the monitors and see the dancing line that is its pulse, hear the slow rhythm of its feeble heartbeat. It’s faint but fierce, clinging to life the way living things do.

It’s laying on your table because it needs help. You’ve sliced it open to see how its insides are arranged and to try to put them back into some semblance of order, but with that first cut all the slimy bits came pouring out like so much spaghetti from an overturned pot, and you have no idea how all this was ever contained in that tiny vessel, nor do you have any idea how you will ever put it back together again. Add to that the fact that you’ve got a few prosthetics waiting to be implanted as well, and the entire ordeal seems about as likely and possible as stuffing a camel wholesale into a shoebox.

So you poke and you prod, and you begin the tedious task of testing what happens when you tug on this muscle, when you nudge that bone, when you tickle this mass of nerves, and watch as the whole organism jumps and dances, demonstrating with shocking clarity all the connections you never saw between this character and that plotline, this complication with that resolution, this joke in the first act with that death in the third. This isn’t just hipbone-connected-to-the-legbone stuff. This is every-blood-vessel-feeds-every-organ-in-the-body. Change one character’s reaction to a simple greeting in the first few pages and the story can end in a completely different place. As intricate and well-formed as the web of story elements may be, it’s imperfect. It needs to be fixed.

You sever a vein here, trim back some muscle there to make room for the new element you have to introduce, and the patient starts hemorrhaging. You get the sense that you’ve ruined everything with one little cut, and blood is rushing to the wound and you can’t see what you’re doing and the only way out is to keep cutting, keep sponging, keep tearing, until the hole is big enough and you can cram the prosthetic in there and begin the bizarre work of reattaching the existent tissue to the alien device, and you’re thinking to yourself, this will never work. It doesn’t fit, it isn’t right, this is a disaster. I’ve killed my story.

But then something strange happens. Through the haze of inkblood and wordgore, you see a sign of healing. The native tissue is accepting the new organ, the capillaries slowly starting to feed it rather than strangle it. The tissue is mending itself, almost of its own volition, as you stitch the narrative flesh back together. As much as you want to save the story, the story wants to survive. The characters adjust the way they react and behave, the plotlines snake and coil into new, more correct pathways, and while the task at hand by no means looks easy, it suddenly looks like it just might be possible. You work and you sweat and you call an intern over to wipe your brow (okay, I have interns in this scenario) and you work some more, suturing and clamping and staunching and stitching, and in what feels like minutes, hours have passed and the patient is stable and has a brand new leg right next to the other three (hey, nobody said I was building a human-normative story here) and if you look at it from the right angle, it might actually be better than the original after all. You close the patient up and he’s stable for the time being and you scrub down and you feel like maybe you’ve done some good for your story despite all your doubts, and then you remember that this is only the first in a six-week regiment of reconstructive surgeries before this patient is cleared to stumble, blinking, into the light of day.

And that prospect is terrifying.

But you’ve survived one day of rewrites, which somehow tells you you can survive another day.

Man. Day one of the serious rewrites is in the bag, and I am exhausted. But I hope — no, I think — that the story is one day better.


Progress Update: Last Chance for Gas

Today, a pretty big milestone in novel progress.

Thanks to a gargantuan push stemming from a renewal of gumption at the beginning of the week, I processed the last thirty pages of the draft over the past three days and am ready to start on my last phase of rewrites for this first editing pass.

To clarify, “processed” means I read it, cleaned up the stinky bits of language, corrected typos, and fixed the bric-a-brac on the shelves, all the while making notes about walls that need tearing down, wires that need ripping out, and pipes that need sealing. That’s the big, scary work, and that will begin … probably next week. Tomorrow I hope to review the first half of the novel to recreate the notes I lost with my old notes and finish creating an outline of the book as it stands. If I have time leftover, I’m going to map out the character arcs and think about re-ordering some portions of the novel.

To be fair, the processing was the easy part, and the much harder work–rewriting the crap bits, changing major plot points, going back to the beginning to plant seeds which need to be fully grown by the end–is still ahead. That’s the stage that’s truly harrowing. It stretches out on the horizon like an endless desert, and somehow I know there are no pit stops along the way; there will be no gas stations or emergency call boxes if I blow a tire or make a wrong turn. However, the big push this week has me crackling with energy and enthusiasm to keep pushing.

And the funniest thing happened as I was reading the last pages.

I realized that I really, really like the story. And I’m saying that not to toot my own horn, but because I truly think that for all the tribulations and for all I thought the book was awful when I was writing it, upon further review and after several months to get some space, ultimately it seems to me that the novel is not that bad. I’ve still got big decisions to make, the fates of characters to decide. I’ll have to destroy some of the helpless squealing unformed bits that I enjoyed so much at the beginning and create brand new replacement parts on the fly, but somehow that task doesn’t seem so daunting.

And that’s not even the best part.

When I was writing the first draft, I could feel myself running out of steam by the end. The last twenty thousand words or so felt like the last miles of a marathon; even with the finish line in sight, even riding on the balmy current of you’re-almost-there-itis, I could feel my knees giving out, my quads locking up, my lungs collapsing in on themselves. I felt like the ending I was writing was simply a placeholder, something awful I was writing to simply get the project to a stopping point so that I could rewrite it later and forget I ever wrote something so bad. But reading it the last couple of days, I find that I’m actually a pretty big fan of the ending. The characters end in good places (while good of course doesn’t necessarily mean “good” for the character, but rather “good” for the story), the critical loose ends are tied up, and there’s a nice sense of completeness to the whole thing. My wife thinks I should leave it open for a sequel in case this thing goes all Harry Potter on me, and I think that the potential to continue is there, though certainly the story could (and does) stand on its own.

There are holes to patch. Rotted boards to replace, rough edges to smooth down. But on the whole I think this thing is moving as it should past the ugly formative stages into the workable beta-reading stage. Which is itself simultaneously amazing and terrifying, because that means that I’m going to have to pry my whitened knuckles from its tender edges and let it go out into the world to be read by people who don’t know the time I’ve spent with it, who don’t know the love and the pain and the suffering and the insanity and the laughter and the frustration and the days and nights and the weekends spent living with these characters, exploring all the plotlines, envisioning the world of the story. Nobody can know all that, but they’re going to have to judge it all the same, and my only hope is that when that time comes, maybe they won’t return it to me and ask, “why did you bother?”

For all my confidence at the high points along this journey, I am still terrified that I’ll be unmasked as a pretender at this whole writing gig. I fear that my internal barometer for assessing the story is hopelessly warped and that I have no proper idea what makes a story actually readable or compelling or enjoyable in the least. But this is no time for entertaining those fears. It’s nearing time to cut the cord and throw this fledgling creation of mine out of the nest and see if it can fly.

I just hope that when that time does finally arrive, I can survive the feedback.

Enough Inertia

I made a mistake yesterday.

No, it wasn’t the four hours of Sherlock that I watched.  Sure, I could perhaps have put the time to better use, but watching Benedict Cumberbatch in action is never the wrong thing to do.

No, it wasn’t the mediocre writing session I had.  That sharknado is gonna happen, I’m down with it.  The only mistake would be giving up and giving in, and letting the Howler Monkey bite my throat out.

I stepped on a scale.

I’m not going to lie and say it was a great shock to me that I had put on weight.  No, I’ve been on this expectant father trip before, I know what it entails.  Diet and healthy eating kinda go out the window when the wife is eating for two, and well, we’ve made all this extra food anyway, something broken in me since childhood won’t let me waste food on a plate.  Long story short, dear sprout #2 has left me about twenty pounds heavier than I was a year or so ago.  I say a year ago because that’s when I stopped looking at scales in general, not because I was upset at what they had to say but because I’d achieved a level of weight loss I was happy with and didn’t see the need to confirm that I was maintaining.  I was running around twenty miles a week, so I didn’t have anything to worry about.

Needless to say, not only have I fallen off the wagon, but the wagon circled around to pick me up and accidentally ran over my neck.  It’s time to dust myself off and get back on the horse.  (And I think I’m mixing up my metaphors again, goldfinger it.)

Running has been about self-improvement since day one for me.  Somewhere along the way it turned into fun, as well, but that doesn’t let me off the hook for the reason for the season.  I didn’t start running to have a good time, I started it to get my asgard in shape.  And it worked.  Trouble is, when you run a lot, and your metabolism kicks up, you start to feel like you can really eat just about anything and get away with it, which is true to a point, that point in my case being when I tore my foot up back in January and then got plantar fasciitis in my other foot just as the first foot was healing.  So now I’m working on getting back into running like I was before, but I’m twenty pounds heavier and my feet are still a little gimpy.

But I’ve also had the wrong approach with my running of late, which is the running scared approach.  I’ve been running scared of injury, running just to maintain, running to keep weight gain at bay.  I haven’t been running to improve, which is why I haven’t been improving.  I’ve been running most of my miles at just over ten-minute pace for the past couple months now.  For me, for the level I was at before January, that’s kinda pitiful.  So, no more ten-minute miles!  If I’m not improving, I’m backsliding, and there has been quite enough backsliding for one year, thank you very much.

But that’s only part of the equation, a fact I was able to ignore two years ago.  See, I was such an out-of-shape mess when I started running that the shock to my system when I started up was like turning loose a leaf blower in a ball pit.  Total havoc, and I cleared out a lot of balls and lost a lot of weight.  It wasn’t the whole picture, but I was happy enough with the results that I didn’t care about that.  I had lost the equivalent of a big-asgard bag of dog food in weight, who was I to complain?  More running won’t shock my system like that again, though.  I know that because I’ve been ramping up my mileage a little at a time since March, but I’m still gaining weight and I’m not getting any faster.

Time to start focusing on the diet and even doing some exercise aside from running, which is really going to be a test for me.  The only reason I’ve managed to stick with running so long is that at some point I tricked myself into thinking it was actually enjoyable and was therefore not really exercise.  But I have some tools in my pocket, a lot of resources, and I’m frustrated enough with myself that I think I can finally get this fitness thing sorted, and sorted properly.

So, no more lazy running.  No more getting down on myself about my writing.  (Yeah, right.)  If I’m not moving forward, I’m moving backward, and I’m too damn old to be moving backward anymore.

Speaking of moving forward, the novel is at 90%.  Feet don’t fail me now.  Except I don’t write with my… you know what I mean.