Endings and Beginnings

Writing only works if you devote yourself to it, day after day, week in and week out, month after agonizing month. You park yourself in front of the screen again and again and again, wondering every day if what you’re doing is going anywhere, or if it’s coming to anything, or if the pieces you’re punching out of the drywall will ever fit together in a shape that fits known geometries or not again. The words pour out and pour out; some days it’s all hey this is pretty fun and cool and exciting whee I’m weaving stories and making magic like a rainbow-skating elf and other days it’s like it’d be easier to self-castrate than type a single word, why do I do this to myself, I have invented a new masochism.

By necessity, I find myself not thinking about the finish too much. In the beginning it’s too far; I might as well be thinking about the end of the Trump presidency for all the good it does me to think about the end of my project today. In the middle it’s a torture — I know it’s getting closer, but like a mirage floating over the horizon, it just never seems to get any closer. And at the end, the nearness of it is distorting, like a haze of summer gnats flittering in your face — close enough to touch, yet dancing just out of reach.

Instead, I watch the ground under my feet. Follow the path where it leads, occasionally stop to check the map, and mostly just focus on not getting stuck in the mud or wandering off into the undergrowth. Think about today’s 500 words today, worry about tomorrow’s 500 words tomorrow, and as for yesterday’s 500 words? Forget them, lest ye be sucked down in the quicksand of self-satisfaction or devoured by the litera-demons that hound your every step. Eyes always ahead — but not too far ahead. Sure, there’s a prize out there in the shape of a finished story (well, “finished” is more like it — you still have to edit the thing, after all). But the real prize is another day walking the path, another day weaving stories out of nothingness, the next 500 words that you haven’t written yet.

In this way, a novel gets written. In this way, a story gets told. In this way, another 8 (or nine? or maybe ten? Who even knows, this journey warps spacetime worse than a singularity) months pass. In this way, another cast of characters struts and frets its hour upon the page.

And then, holy carp, one day you’re working away — faithfully, dutifully, painfully hammering out your daily words, when the fog lifts. The trees thin out. The mirage resolves itself.

The loose ends of the story are tying themselves into neat little knots, your word count is knocking on the door of that 85,000 mark, and you realize: it’s almost over.

On the one hand, it’s gratifying as hell — you’ve worked away these months, not knowing what, if anything, it was all going to come to, and now you can look back at the trail you’ve blazed. It was all leading somewhere, after all: to this moment, right here, this patch of virgin earth under your battered boots. The sun seems to shine a little brighter here; the rain passes a little quicker; the breeze is a little sweeter. It’s nearly over. Mission accomplished. C’est finis. (Are those even words? They feel like they might be words.)

But there’s a dissatisfaction, too; equal and opposite to the fullness of accomplishment. The story’s not done yet, not really. You’ve blazed the trail, but you have to go back and mark it out so that your readers can follow you down it. And that’s a lot of work ahead.


But more so than re-treading this trail you’ve just carved — which will be its own adventure, no doubt — is this: Here you stand, in the midst of the wilderness. The ending point for one journey. And the starting point for the next one.

Make no mistake, finishing a novel is a sweet, sweet feeling. But it’s not a fullness that lets you sit back and unbuckle your belt like you’ve just polished off five pounds of Thanksgiving turkey before you slip into a tryptophan coma. It’s a fullness that scatters like ice from the spoon (I stole that simile from somewhere, but I’ve no idea where), that leaves you hungry again the moment it clears your palate.

There are more trails to blaze, more strange and wonderful characters to meet, more dangers to face, more MacGuffins to MacGuffin.

And though this particular page may be full, you can already hear the next blank page calling.

What else can you do but answer?

Finish What You Start; Start What You Can Finish

This is about the time of year when I post a big rant about New Year’s Resolutions. But not this year. This year? I’ve got enough of my own sharknado going on to worry about starting in on anybody else, let alone myself. You want to make a resolution? Go ahead. You want to be one of the throng that’s overwhelming every gym in the country during the month of January? Do you.

The only thing I’m going to say about resolutions this year is: finish what you start.

It’s simple advice, but I forget it myself from time to time, and there’s sure as hell a lot of unfinished business in the world to testify for it.

Finish what you start.

This is the year you decide to start doing the thing? Great. Be real specific about what that thing is. Make sure it’s a thing you actually can finish, and then start doing it with the goal in mind.

You’re going to take up running? Nah, that’s not specific enough. Decide instead that you’re going to run a 5k. Then, instead of going out on Jan. 1 (or, okay, Jan. 2 if you’re hung over), padding around in the cold a bit and deciding this whole “running” thing isn’t for you, you start down a path. You go out, run a bit, and it sucks, but you’ve still got that 5k distance looming, and you’re not there yet. Probably won’t be for some time. So the next day, you’re compelled to lace up again and try a little harder, until you can finish what you start.

Taking up writing? Super. Put a goal on it. If it’s a blog, make it a post a week, or a post every three days, or a post every time Saturn is in the house of whatever bullshirt astrology thing tickles your toes. If it’s a novel, well, then, it’s a novel; that means 50,000 words on a conservative estimate. If it’s just “writing”, nebulous and dreamlike, well, technically, you write an e-mail every couple of days, right? Or a shopping list? Or a note to yourself in the fog of the shower mirror? And that’s real easy to do, except that’s not what you meant by “writing”, and you know it. Writing 500 words a day, every day, until you have 50,000 words? That’s 100 days. That’s an accomplishment. That’s a thing that, when it’s finished, will feel solid in the hands, like a participation trophy or the trunk of the neighbor’s tree that hangs over your yard when you finally cut it down.

Me? I’ve got a handful of things that I’ve started, but I haven’t yet finished. Chief among them are several writing projects, but I’m not worried about that, because even though I’m in a lull right now (man, it’s hard maintaining a daily word count when you’re a teacher on holiday break) (make that nigh impossible) (okay fine I took a week off from my project, are you happy now??), I know I have the momentum to finish anyway.

Not because writing novels, or short stories, or even blog posts is easy. It isn’t. But I can write 500 words a day. (Okay, FINE, I can write 500 words a day when I’m not on vacation.) And when I’m in those 500 words, I finish what I start.

Then, the next day, I start again.

Then again.

By the end of a month, I’ve started and finished over twenty 500-word sessions, and that goes a long way toward finishing the 80,000-word first draft I started some five or six months ago. Two more months should just about do it. Two more months to finish what I started in the middle of last year, even though the end of that particular road wasn’t even visible from the starting line.

Manageable, achievable goals. Baby steps. Small successes lead to big successes.

This is why you won’t find me vowing to write and publish three novels next year, or resolving to cut all the carbs out of my diet, or promising myself that I’m really going to keep in touch with my friends this year. Those aren’t things I can reasonably finish.

But I can finish this draft I’m in.

Starting a project and finishing one actually feel very much alike. Lots of confused looking around, waiting and hoping for directions from on high, for the disembodied voice of god or the angels or your conscience to say, “look, this is what you need to be doing, so just get to it”. The blank page is disorienting in its perfection, its vastness. The completed page is disorienting as well, in that you’re suddenly untethered from this thing you’ve been attached to. There’s a lostness.

But if you never get lost, you never feel the high of finding yourself again.

This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.

The Weekly Re-Motivator: Categories Are Crap

I’m not NaNoWriMo-ing, as I’ve said before, but I do have a thick skull full of dubious writing tidbits for those of you out there scrambling to make your 50k. (What are you, at 10k today, pushing for 12? Maybe a bit further along to buy yourself a breathless, red-eyed day off over the weekend? You poor souls.)

Today’s rumination: categories are crap.

Let’s be clear: your work is going to be categorized, and it should be categorized. Eventually. Categories matter: without them, we’re never going to be able to get our works into the hands of as many readers as we’d like to. But (and here’s where my novice chops are going to show, maybe) I don’t think categories matter until it’s almost time to publish. Because categories are for readers and editors and publishers, so they know where to put and where to find and how to push your book.

But for you? The author neck-deep in a 50k slog that needs to be completed in three weeks? (Or in the midst of a 100k slog that you’d like to complete this year, more conservatively.) You can give a big middle finger to categories.

“Oh, I’m writing an urban sci-fi horror YA cyberpunk thriller.”

No, you’re not. You’re writing a story about some kids with computers that spawn monsters who drag their souls into the dark web and sell them for Bitcoins. (Copyrighted!)

“Me? I’m writing an alternate-historical period piece romance / spy novel.”

Negative. You’re writing a love story between secret agents in a made-up setting where you can make up any rules you want.

But what’s the difference? I hear you cry. Why not pick my category now, so I know how to write it the piece as it grows?

In this humble writer’s opinion, putting a category on your work is like putting up a fence in your yard. On the one hand, it makes it real easy to see where your property ends, or where you need to put on shoes lest you step in a pile of dogsharknado. On the other hand, it makes it real easy to see where your property ends, or where you need to put on shoes lest you step in a pile of dogsharknado. Putting a category on your work means that you’re saying, this stuff belongs in my story, and this other stuff does not. It means, these sorts of things can happen in my story. It means, I’m going for this specific feel in my story.

Which, again, is great … for later drafts. Later drafts are the time to think about audience, about marketing, about where your story fits. But to think about this stuff during the first draft, or even the first round of edits, is suicide. To use the fence metaphor, you’re marking out clearly defined areas where your story can and cannot go.

But why would you do that during the first draft?

The first draft is hard enough without arbitrary lines criss-crossing the landscape telling you you can’t go here. The first draft is a brutal hike through overgrown jungle with a machete, it’s a solitary sojourn through unforgiving desert.  Boundaries are a great way to bog down, and if you’re NaNo-ing, you can ill afford to get bogged down. (To be fair, even if you’re not NaNo-ing, getting bogged down in your work sucks — lose your momentum and you lose your motivation to continue.)

The first draft is a baby bird learning to fly — it needs all the clear space it can get to figure itself out. Your story needs the space — you need the space — to breathe, to try new things, to make a hard left and run the story into a ditch, to cut back right and drive it through a building. You make that harder on yourself if you’re locked into categories, into preconceived notions of what your story can and can’t be before you’ve even written it.

Stories are living things that change as they grow. I started my just-finished draft of a novel thinking I wanted to write a YA sci-fi coming-of-age piece, and I ended up writing something a lot more like a survivalist cyber-horror fate-vs.-free-will story, if any of those things are actually things. One way or another, I’m a lot happier with the story I wrote than the story I was trying to write. Further, I noticed that every time I got stuck in the novel, it’s because I was trying to force the story or the characters to do something out of character. I can’t have this happen in a YA novel, I thought, but when I let go of that constraint and just let it happen anyway, the story moved along just fine.

Don’t get me wrong. That first draft is a mess. It needs tons of work, and the time will come when I will refine it down and decide what neat little boxes it fits into. But if I’d gotten hung up on the categories, I don’t know if I could even have finished it.

Your story wants to be something.

You have to accept the fact that maybe you don’t entirely know what that is yet.

But, just like a teenage daughter, if you try to force it to be something it isn’t, it’s going to rebel and bring home a guy with a mohawk.

Don’t let your story bring home a guy with a mohawk.

Let your story be the guy with the mohawk.

This weekly Re-Motivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every Saturday, I use LindaGHill‘s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.

Outline, Schmoutline: A Cautionary Tale for Pantsers

I’ve kvelled for most of the summer about my difficulties with my current writing project. Those difficulties are made all the worse by the fact that I’ve been languishing in the mushy middle of the book; that part where the beginning has happened and ended, and we’re working toward an ending that will take up the last quarter of the book. Meanwhile, however, things seem not to be happening with much urgency or importance. I mean, parts are moving that have to move, but much like a sailboat in the middle of the Pacific, there’s some drift happening, and it’s hard to be sure moment-to-moment whether it’s good drift or bad drift. There’s nothing but deep blue sea out here. It all looks the same.

This, to be sure, is where my general go-to strategy for writing hits the wall like a midget riding a crazed pygmy bull. I’m a pantser, not a plotter, because I just can’t be bothered to make outlines. I tell myself and people who ask me (woe betide them) it’s because I write organically, whatever the fargo that means. In my head, it means that I craft the characters and the general situation and sort of “listen” to the characters as they “feel” their way through the situation and find their way through it. In practice, that means I’m basically making it up as I go along. The problem there is that Rome doesn’t get built in a day, and a novel is not written in a week. I’ve been working now for about three, four months on this project, head down, churning out the word count like a good penmonkey, but each day it’s the same. I know generally what has to happen next, I write it, I leave some notes to myself about tomorrow, I repeat. Which is fine for making my word count goals, but maybe not so fine for the story as a whole.

And making the word count goal has been difficult lately, not just because I’m in the doldrums of summer, but because I feel down to my bones the “lostness” of the project right now. It’s hard to make myself write 1000 words a day when I’m not sure where those words are leading me. This feeling would be very easy to mistake for Writer’s Block. In fact, Past Me would have gladly called it Writer’s Block and used it as an excuse to take a seven year sabbatical from the project. It looks like Writer’s Block, it smells like Writer’s Block. But it’s not Writer’s Block. I’m just lost.


Because there’s nobody really steering the ship. It’s impossible to have the oversight I need to make sure the project is on track while also pushing out about 1000 words a day on this thing. All I can really do is watch the road directly in front of me and make sure I’m not driving into the ditch.

But that’s a problem, because I’m missing the road signs along the way, I’m missing landmarks, I’m not getting much feel for the arc of the story as a whole. I know where it needs to go generally, but it’s been a long time since I bothered to check the map and see whether I’m on course.

And what’s a map to a writer? Unfortunately for pantsers like me, it’s an outline.

And for a month now, I’ve felt that the narrative is adrift, that I don’t know where I’m going, that I’m getting a little lost. Time for a map check.

So tonight, instead of sitting down to pound out 1000 words of narrative, I resolved to do some outlining. I skimmed through what I’ve written so far and summed up the main points of each chapter. Which taught me that, some boring exposition aside, a few less-than-meaningful interactions aside, a few unnecessary characters who will be pruned in future drafts aside, the narrative actually clips along pretty well. Once I get the thing sanded down, it’s gonna hum, baby. Outlining also taught me that I’ve forgotten several details — even some key and important things I planted early in the draft which need to play major roles in the end of the book. They’d just slipped my mind, which is not surprising, because drafting a full-length novel and making it up as you go along is a little bit like juggling the entire contents of your kitchen at once, and then somebody hands you a baby.

So, with outline of everything I’ve written in hand, I’m ready for tomorrow’s session, which is going to be roughly outlining the back half of the book. It won’t be even a quarter as detailed as the outline of what I’ve already written, but what it will do is tell me the plot points I need to steer for when I get adrift again in the coming months of drafting. I’ve already seen, just from retracing my steps over the past couple chapters, what I need to do with the next three or four chapters. Which makes going back to work on the draft that much easier, because I don’t have to make it all up on the spot. I don’t have to find my way across the Pacific just by glancing at the night sky.

I’m here to tell you that I felt silly spending an hour and a half writing out an outline for a book I’ve already written half of. It’s going to be arduous work completing the outline for the prospective ending, especially knowing (as I already do) that that ending will change in some way, shape, or form by the end. But I’m also here to tell you that I see more clearly than I have in months the path that the book has been on and the path it needs to take. Foreign as it felt, the outline has reinvigorated me at a time when I desperately needed it.

So, my advice to my future self is:

  1. Write.
  2. Write some more.
  3. Outline what you’ve written.
  4. Write some more.
  5. Throw the outline out the window.
  6. Make a new outline.
  7. Repeat.

The First Draft: The Shape-Shifting Target

Writing, as I think I’ve mentioned before, is an exercise in futility.

You work so hard to craft a story, to chisel characters from the soft stone of imagination and breathe life into their formless husks. You try to communicate themes, to send messages, to tie up loose ends, to suggest ideologies, but it’s all a mug’s game, really. I was reading the other day another blogger’s dismay that her father refused to read the Lord of the Rings series, or watch the movies, on the grounds that it was “satanic”. For all the work that you put into a story, all that matters at the end of the day is what other people make of it.

Which is kind of a bummer, because you can only involve other people so much in the writing of it, which is to say, you can hardly involve them at all. I mean, research aside, 99% of the writing of a story is completed by the author himself, probably in a dark room with no windows, certainly removed from most human contact, except for the plate of gruel that gets pushed through the slot in the door a couple of times a day.

So you try to write a story for other people, but that’s a mug’s game, too, because you simply can’t control the headspace that another person lives in, you can’t sit there over their shoulder to tell them this character is blowing up the village because she really wants everybody to love her. You can’t be there on-call to answer questions your readers have. They make their own meaning, and that’s that, so there’s not much point in trying to steer their interpretations — the best thing you can do is write the story you want to write, and write it as best you can.

But even that’s next to impossible, it seems, because a story has a life of its own. You set out to write a science-fiction thriller and end up writing a teen angst comedy. You set out to write a romance and end up with a twisted love-hate psycho-suspense novel like Gone Girl. My current project has changed from the seedling I started with so many times, I can’t even keep track. It’s a post-apocalyptic horror book. No, wait, it’s a sci-fi mystery. No, never mind, it’s a YA coming-of-age.

It doesn’t stop there. My protagonist is a nerdy guy who has never lived anywhere for more than three months. No, she’s a photography student with a project from a whimsical art teacher on deadline. No, I have three protagonists. And there’s a wild-eyed scientist who may or may not be directly responsible for the apocalypse that we’re living in post of. But he’s really a good guy. No, he’s really a bad guy. No, he’s really a bad guy who pretends to be a good guy. No, wait, he’s just this guy who really doesn’t care about the protagonists, and concepts like good and bad are a little bit like asking whether I want chocolate or vanilla ice cream for dessert, because the answer is inevitably “yes please, a little of both.”

There’s a time machine. No, there are time portals scattered around. There’s an evil robot. No, there are lots of evil robots. There’s a robot that gets captured and reprogrammed to allow the heroes to thwart the system. There are no robots at all, but everybody has biological implants that make them act like robots.

My first draft contains elements of ALL OF THE ABOVE, thrown together and mangled like the lump of junkyard metal that used to be my ’99 Chevy Malibu (god rest that train wreck of a car).

Because the story keeps changing on me, the target keeps moving. Not only does it move, it changes shape and size and color and even, in this case, blinks in and out of existence as it dances through different dimensions of my unsettled imagination.

And there are two ways to feel about that.

Way number the first: get incredibly frustrated. You start a story with a certain idea in mind, you should stick to that idea. Deviations from the path are a waste of time and counter-productive. Bang your head against the wall until the poisonous ideas go away and you find your way back to the one true path that you started with, no matter how long it takes.

Way number the second: Fargo the target. Write what feels good, allow the story to change and shift its shape, allow it to tangle itself up in knots and to contradict its own existence, until it figures out just what the hell it wants to be, anyway.

I feel like I should feel the first way, because that would make me feel more powerful as a writer. You set out to write a story and you end up with pretty much that story, plus or minus a few unexpected elements along the way.

But I’m starting to feel okay about the fact that, deep down, I really feel the second way. Because it’s a lot less stressful writing when you allow yourself not to make perfect sense, when you allow yourself to make mistakes and detour down all the dark, twisting paths in the maze.

Because writing is one of those rare things that you don’t have to get perfect the first time. You get a second bite at the apple, and a third, and a fourth, and in fact you can get a whole other apple after you’ve chewed the first one to bits, because until you’re published, it doesn’t matter if the apple is green or red or golden or filled with worms or made of plastic.

I think it’s okay if you set out to build a tree house and end up building a coffee table instead. Maybe that’s your subconscious telling you that what you really needed, deep down, was a place to put your coffee cups. And magazines. And remote controls. And dirty diapers.

Okay, things got too real there for a moment. Point is, if the target is moving, maybe it’s not the target moving at all.

Maybe it’s you.

And you can argue against it and rail against it, or you can accept that the picture has changed, take aim, and keep shooting.