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The Doldrums


It’s no secret I’ve struggled with the editing of this novel. The highs are stratospheric and the lows are Death Valley-esque.

But I’m in the midst of an issue that I am unsure of the cure for. I feel rather like I’ve set off on the Oregon Trail, but I didn’t pack nearly enough provisions and all I can do is watch my livestock and then my family wither and die in the wilderness. (You have died of dysentery.)

I had the “brilliant” idea a few weeks back to add a new character to the story. He’d bring balance to the force, I thought, and provide some growth for certain characters while getting in the way of others. He’d plug up plot holes and give me a path to a much cleaner resolution than the one I wrote the first time around. In short, he’d fix my problems.

Now, I’m about a week into trying to shoehorn him into this thing and… oh, man, I just don’t know. On the one hand, I feel he certainly has the potential to do all the things I wanted him to do, but in his current form he’s doing them about as well as a guy with no hands can read braille. Which is to say, all he can really do is lean into the story and mash his face against it. It’s torturous work trying to make him interface with the existing plot and characters in any meaningful way that doesn’t feel totally artificial and tacked-on. It’s mentally exhausting pondering the ways to make all the things that have to happen happen (untangle that, grammar checkers), and much like a hapless tracker in a driving snow, I keep retracing my steps. I’ve rewritten one series of two pages four times now, and it’s impossible for me to tell which version is any better than the others. You add to that the fact that every little change I make here means other dangly bits and loose ends elsewhere in the story have to be busted apart and rejiggered, and the whole mess has devolved into one great giant gumption trap, to borrow a term from Robert Pirsig (from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance).

To nutshell and paraphrase, a gumption trap is a small problem that trips you up in a big way, then pretends to be bigger than it is to make itself seem unsolvable. The example I recall from the book was rounding off a screw on an engine compartment panel, thus effectively sealing the panel shut. Not only do you have the problem of unscrewing a screw with no head, but you can’t even begin to think about how to solve the problem that you were trying to get into the engine compartment for in the first place until you can deal with the tiny screw. It swells so large that it fills your vision, and you lose all sense not only of any possible solution to the problem itself, but also of your entire ability to achieve the thing that the problem got in the way of in the first place. You can spend hours staring at a gumption trap, pondering and scheming and hypothesizing, and end up no closer to solving it than the moment after it sprang itself. Yep, that pretty much encapsulates my feeling on the novel right now. A broken motorcycle whose engine I can’t even look at.

So the edit is a problem. But what’s doubly troubling is that I can’t even measure the progress I’m making. For every step forward, I have to take about three steps back. But then I can steal the good ideas I had for this other idea and divert them to this other other idea to make it work better, so I mentally copy and paste a little and gain back a step or two. But then that idea breaks down and I feel the urge to undo what I’ve done, and that brings me back to the original thing which I then also subsequently want to undo, so I write it again. On an internal level, I know that there’s “work” being done here, but it’s impossible to quantify it. Some days I add to the word count of the original. Some days I subtract. Today all I’ve been able to do is stare at the page while the characters swirl around my head and shout obscenities at me about how useless it is to have them swirling around my head all day. They want to fix their problems. I want to fix their problems. Problem is that for those problems to get fixed, ultimately the road leads through me, and I feel about as qualified to sort out any narrative snarls as a seal is to help you with your math homework, which is to say, not at all, unless that homework involves a bunch of fish and barking, which my story does not. GET OUT OF HERE, IMAGINARY SEAL. YOU’RE NOT HELPING.

Triply troubling is the fact that I can feel the morass of this thing sucking at my boots as I try to wade across it. With each step, I feel a bit more gunk collecting on my undersoles, a bit more narrative dead weight hanging like an albatross about my neck. Momentum matters, as I’ve pointed out before, and my momentum on this thing feels like it’s barely crawling forward, if it’s moving at all.

In short, I’m stuck in the doldrums with this thing, and there is not a breeze in sight to catch my drooping sails and propel my scurvy-ridden crew out of this mess any time soon. To complicate matters further, for some reason my running playlist keeps throwing at me the song that’s inspired the next novel I plan to write, which makes me want to think about that story instead of this one. I know that that way madness lies, because the moment I take my focus away from the current project, it’s going to start to sour in the sun and I might never return to rejuvenate it.

No, this is no time to abandon the Project, or turn my back on it even for a moment, no matter how much its quagmire is pulling me down. Solutions will present themselves. Once I can solve the project of this shoehorn character, I suspect that the rest of the edit will look like a field of candy corn by the end. Of course, that simile only works if you like candy corn. Anyway… I’m working on it. I’m blarging more about it. That always seems to help knock the ol’ cobwebs loose. And I’m trying not to think too hard about it, because like any gumption trap, the more you bang your head against the thing the less capable of fixing it you become, until all you want to do is throw the whole contraption in the fire, and that’s a thing I don’t want to feel compelled to do. Because if presented with the opportunity, the Id-Writer may just snap his chains, jump the fence, and do exactly that.

I have to remind myself to breathe and to keep writing. Eyes on the prize and all that tripe. It’s still first stages. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Just keep writing. Keep working. I’m at home in the me that is on this adventure.

BREATHE.

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Double Space, I Hardly Knew Ye


I’m always afraid I’m going to be found out.

I’m that guy in the movies who’s walking backward against the current and the only thing saving me from annihilation is that somehow the other berks in the matrix haven’t scented me out yet. I’m covered in zombie entrails walking amongst the walking dead, counting on the smell of dead things to keep me incognito. I’m the wolf covered in tufts of cotton, only invisible because the sheep haven’t bothered to look my way.

I’m making it up as I go in every facet of my life. As a husband? Yeah, I’m five years into that and have no idea what I’m doing. As a father? Don’t make me laugh. What parent really knows what he is doing? It’s my baseline goal to make sure the kid doesn’t grow up to be a mass-murderer, anything beyond that is gravy. As a teacher? Let’s just say I fear for the future. Even now, as I write this blarg post, I’m inescapably aware that in no way am I qualified to be writing the things I’m writing about, whether in my novel or here on this lonely corner of the web. I don’t know what I’m doing.

The only reason, as Tommy Lee Jones said in Men in Black, that I’m able to go on with my life is that most of the time, I do not know about it. There are probably better ways to write, but I am merrily unaware. Doubtless there are better parenting methods, but mine is working well enough for me so far. Ignorance, as they say, is bliss. And I sure as sharknado thought I was doing a decent job as an English teacher.

The problem with living happily in ignorance is that sooner or later, somebody will point out the ways in which you never knew you were wrong, as evidenced by any nimrod who’s anti-vaccinations will be glad to tell you. Even now, this very instant, I am struggling with a bit of information I’ve just learned which is shaking up my very existence, fighting against the habits and automatic thinking which have been a part of me for over twenty years.

Seriously, how did I make it this far in my life not knowing that you only press space once after a period?

I’ve been typing with the double-spaced period for ages. AGES. I learned in my keyboarding class in middle school that a period gets two spaces behind it, and I’ve been typing that way ever since. Then today, it’s pointed out to me that two spaces after a period is nigh-archaic. I ask my wife who writes for a living, and in typical I-can’t-believe-I’m-married-to-this-idiot fashion, she says, “obviously. How did you not know that?” Somehow in twenty years I’ve missed the memo on this and nobody ever bothered to tell me.

Recently I heard a story about a guy who went into Home Depot to buy a new toilet and asked if, since he lived alone, he could just get a toilet without the seat. He lived by himself, no women in the house, so no need to put the seat down. Innocently, a worker asked him how he would be able to go #2, and the guy said, “what do you mean?” After a bit of embarrassing questioning, it came out that the guy had never sat on a toilet seat in his life, he always just squatted over the bowl. Certainly it never hurt anybody. He just never learned the right way and continued on, living his life in the complete wrong way until by mistake somebody set him straight.

So it is with me and the period. The humble period, of all things. Only the most common punctuation mark in the written language. Only the simple symbol of the end of a sentence, the building block of the paragraph, and therefore of all language itself. You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve had to hit backspace, in this paragraph alone, to go back and erase one of the extra spaces I’m inserting as automatically as breathing.

The double space is a habit it’s going to take me months to unlearn. I wish I had a time machine so that I could go back, find my sixth-grade typing teacher, and punch her in the neck.

What’s next? Will I find out I’ve been spelling my own name wrong? Mispronouncing the simplest of words? Wearing my shoes on the wrong feet?


In Search of a Bigger Boat (One Week of Editing Done)


I’m a week into the edit of AI.

It’s odd.

I really don’t know how else to characterize the experience.  It’s just odd.  Odd that I have written this relatively speaking huge-asgard novel which I’m now poring through in order to catch all the mistakes and make it less, uh, sharknado-ey.  Odd that I’m breaking it apart bit by bit with the literary equivalent of a rock hammer to examine all the weird crusty bits.  Odd that it’s been long enough since I wrote it, and the project was big enough, and I let enough time pass that I don’t even recall writing some of what I definitely wrote.  I mean, there were no pen-wielding hobos in my employ.  I didn’t black out during any of the writing (that I’m aware of).  It’s all me, and it sounds like me, even if I don’t recognize it as such.

I’m an English teacher by trade, though, and I can’t shake the simple and obvious comparison that editing this monster is a bit like grading a sharknado-ey sophomore English paper.  Mind you, my grammar and syntax are a touch better than the average 15-year-old’s, but the process is the same.  “Oh, I see what you were after here, but you worded it awkwardly and it feels like pins and needles in my skull when I read this.”  Out comes the red pen.  “Stop showing off your gargantuan vocabulary, you’ll alienate the reader.”  Big “x” through the offending word.  “What the f*$&@ were you thinking?”  Entire paragraph circled and slated for demolition.  Or the ever-enigmatic, simple and yet baffling “no” marked next to a passage that was deemed, for some reason or another, offensive to the eye or mind.

And let’s not sugarcoat things here, there is a LOT of red ink on this draft.

I thought it was pretty good when I wrote it.  To be fair, I still think most of it is pretty good, but I see an almost endless array of ways for it to be better.  Clunky language here.  Overused modifiers there.  Odd out-of-body-experience repetition in this particular area.  Missing elements.  Unnecessary descriptions.  Vagueness.  Overspecificity.  If there’s a writing sin for it, I’ve committed that sin, probably on the Sabbath and while facing away from Mecca.  I may have mixed metaphors as well.  But, on the whole, I’ve not had to make any major changes to the draft or to the copy.  The biggest changes I’ve made so far are the removal of one entire paragraph describing a character — I thought it was better to let the character’s actions speak for her — and the addition of a paragraph bridging the mental gap I made between a character understanding a problem and moving toward a solution.  It was too easy, and upon re-reading it, I realized that in the best of cases it simply didn’t make sense, and in the worst of cases not only did it not make sense, but it was also insulting and cliche in its avoidance of sense.

But the little things are the little things.  I know that the Big Problems are out there in the deep water, cruising the depths and waiting for me to circle back.  These monsters I created in the draft are hungry, and their teeth are fearsome and seeking.  I’m skipping around the shallows right now in a waverunner, but to deal with those leviathans, I’m going to need a bigger boat.

I’m new to this game, but it seems to me like the editing process is highly subjective and personal.  Before I jumped in, I was terrified that there might be a right way and a wrong way to do it, that I’d screw up the pudding and cause the whole souffle to fall if I didn’t tackle things in the proper order and with the proper technique.  But the water is always shocking when you first jump in.  I’m starting to feel comfortable, to establish a routine, and to feel as if I have a decent gameplan in mind for slaying this dragon.

For reference (yours if you’re thinking about embarking on a journey like mine, mine if it changes later and I disavow everything I’ve written to date), here’s how I’m tackling it.

  • I read my draft in MS Word with Track Changes enabled.
  • I keep a notepad open in front of me while I read.
  • I parse about five pages — or 3000 words — per day.
  • Major plot points and character developments get noted in the notepad.
  • Problems with the copy are either addressed immediately (I clean up vagueness or messy language) or highlighted for the second pass.
  • On the opposite-facing page of the notepad, I keep a running to-do list of things I need to fix when I come back for the second pass.  (These tend to be the more involved things that I can’t do in just a few minutes, like giving a better description of a character, or figuring out where and when I need to introduce an element that needs to be present for later in the story.)

It’s tedious, no doubt, and part of me wants to follow some advice I’ve seen elsewhere, which is to just hunker down and read through the whole thing in one go: a couple of days or so, and leave all the fixing for Future Mes to figure out.  But I don’t know if that’s how I work, for better or for worse.  When I clean house (and here my wife is laughing her butt off), I try to clean everything all at once.  I’ll be polishing a countertop in the kitchen, then see a doodad that belongs in the living room.  I stop polishing to return the doodad and I see that the doodads are out of alignment.  So I take a moment to straighten them out, and I discover a missing piece to a set of decorative doohickeys in our bedroom.  Naturally, I stop the alignment of the doodads to return the doohickey, and then I see that the trashcans upstairs need emptying, and soon an hour has passed and my wife is asking me why the hell it’s taking me so long to clean the countertops in the kitchen.

I can’t say it’s the most efficient way to process this first draft, but I think it’s working so far.  At the very least I feel productive, and since this is all about me, I’m going to take that and be joyful for now.

I’ll keep you posted when it’s time to tangle with the sharks.


Repeticons, a word I’ve just made up


It’s the last week of school, and I’ve got English on the brain.  English is awesome.  English is dumb.  I love it.  I hate it.  I love language and want to spend the rest of my life finding new ways to tell exciting and interesting stories.  I hate language and grr blargle argle sknash.

If you’re going to be a writer, you have to love the language at least a little bit.  I love it a lot.  I love its twists and turns, I love its nooks and crannies, I love its incongruities, I love its flat contradictions.  More than that, I love to play with it.

I think authors have to practice their wordplay at every opportunity they can get, like the guys with the things doing the things to other things.  Ahem.  My brain’s a little fried and my wordplay is not in top form right now.  But that won’t stop me from writing about it. Continue reading


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