The Weekly Re-Motivator: Mental Contractions

I love a good metaphor ’round these parts, and the SoCS prompt this week plays right into it.

I’ve likened writing to a lot of things in the past. Hiking through a dense, all-engulfing jungle. Dragging yourself through a brutal desert. Rebuilding a car from its component parts.

But my favorites are the visceral ones, the ones with lots of fluids involved. The messy ones. The human ones. Hacking a malformed creature to bits and building a new monstrosity from the leftover gore. Slicing off redundant flesh, vestigial limbs. Draining the narrative of its thick, murky, purple-prosed blood and refilling it with clear, slippery, quick-flowing prose.

Or giving birth.

See, some writers are like insects or even trees or flowers; dropping eggs every so often or scattering spores and seeds around willy-nilly, giving birth to one narrative after another, writing regularly every day, staying productive even as their everyday lives swirl around them in a tornado of accomplishment and fulfillment.

But some of us are mammals. We can’t procreate all the time; we have to incubate, to grow the thing in utero until it’s fully-formed and ready to spring forth into the world. The work is done internally, gestating in the mind, sprouting limbs in secret, growing lungs safe from the light of day. Over months — sometimes even years — the thing takes shape. It kicks and squirms and twists, banging at the writer’s insides like a blind rhinoceros. It becomes all the writer can think about. It becomes as much a part of the writer as her own heart and brain.

And then — when the time is right (I actually wrote “write” when I meant to write “right”, which tells you how sunk I am in the metaphor) — contractions.

The body begins to reject the mostly-formed critter forcefully, urgently. In the space of a couple of hours, every system that worked to protect the young one and keep it safe reverses gears. The incubation is over: now the thing must come out or one of them may die. And come out it does. Amid screams of torturous pain, the expulsion of blood and a host of other unmentionable fluids, and an unending flurry of pushes which seem unproductive, the thing slowly slithers its way into the light.

There are writers like that. We incubate the ideas in the mind, insulating them from the light of day until they burst forth, uncontrollably and with great vigor, scattering the inkblood and amniotic word fluid across the previously perfect blank page.

And we expel this little miracle onto the table/page, where it flops around, taking its first breaths and spreading its wings (or whatever) for the first time.

And it’s … well, it’s imperfect. But it’s a thing we’ve created, and so in a way, it is perfect. And we’ll spend the coming months if not years nurturing it, feeding it, teaching it to walk and talk and influence the minds of the weak.

I’ve lost track of whether I’m talking about a story or a baby.

What are you? An incubator or a spreader-of-spores, a populator?

(And usually I include a picture, but I just can’t bring myself to post a picture of a mother in childbirth. Having witnessed it firsthand — kind of [my kids were born by Caesarean] — well. I just won’t do that to you.)

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 Floodgates of New Ideas

It always happens like this, dunnit?

I’m plugging away at my current project, having what I wish I could say was a trying time with it but which, if I’m honest, is giving me serious existential doubt not just about this particular project but about my entire experiment as a writer. (Seriously, I’m in the murky expanses of the mushy middle, wherein all the conflicts are established and now I have to go about finding ways to begin resolving them without bogging down the book in the taffy-like quicksand of extended exposition.)

Then I’m out for a run this morning.

Nothing special about this run except that I don’t have the sprouts in the stroller with me, so I’m running a little lighter than usual. I also don’t have to respond to the constant stream of three-year-old-out-in-the-world babble (what’s that? where’s that bird going? where’s mommy? can we go to the playground? how does that car move? i need to go potty. daddy, are you running? WHAT IS THE MEANING OF LIFE?), so for the first time in a while, I got to run with a podcast. I get to think. (For the record, it’s The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe.)

So I’m listening and I’m running, which is a great way to pass the miles, when all of a sudden, they mention something off the cuff, and it plows through my ear canal and smashes into my cerebellum like a six-mile meteor. It claws its way across my grey matter, sinks its glistening fangs in, and burrows in like a microscopic tick.

This is how ideas strike me.

I don’t think of a character and invent whole backstories and weird relationships and quirky mannerisms. I don’t fixate on places and ambience. I get a little snippet of something strange, something unexpected and quirky and strange, and I train the Max-Gro Overinflating Laser on it. What would the world be like if… and before I know it I’ve created, not individual characters, not even a central conflict, but a whole city, a whole society, a whole world wherein everything is colored, changed, tainted by the exponential possible implications of this tiny little seedling that just glanced off my consciousness.

And now it’s all I can think about.

I’m considering the characters that a world like this should be primarily focused on. I’m exploring a conflict that is possible in the real world but intensified by this new thing. In short, the idea is growing across my brain like kudzu across the side of my house, sinking its leafy tendrils into all the cracks and crevices, splitting open the siding, choking out the flowers I’m trying to cultivate for the project I’m, you know, trying to work on.

So I spent the fifteen minutes after my run, sweat still pouring from my everywhere (gotta love that humid Georgia weather), jotting down ideas and impressions, possible characters and conflicts, and every implication that I can think of for a world that includes this one little difference.

But I can’t abandon the current idea in favor of this one.

Because if I do that, then it’ll happen again; I’ll get halfway into writing the new novel and another new idea will strike, tempting and consuming, and I’ll abandon the new idea for the next big thing.

So this one goes on the pile for now. (The pile of potential projects I want to write is now… what… about four or five deep? And that’s ideas I’ve spent a good bit of time thinking about, considering whether they’d actually make for a good story, and determining that they would. This says nothing for the landfill of seedlings that strike and get immediately discarded, which are innumerable as lost rings in the ocean.)

It’ll be there waiting, when this one is done.

But the neat thing about this is, it has primed my creativity for the day, and I can’t wait to work on my current project now.

Creativity is weird like that.

Newton’s Laws of Writing

A while ago, there was this guy.

He sat under a tree for a while — a really long while — until eventually the tree sharted an apple on his head, and instead of just finding a different tree to sit under, this enterprising fargoer went and derived the laws for all freaking motion in the universe from that one little incident. I’m pretty sure he also went on to invent some awful cookies, although the real depth of his genius might be measured by the fact that he convinced people that those little bits of sandpaper wrapped around pseudo-fruit-filling were cookies in the first place, and not, in fact, aardvark turds rolled in discarded cicada husks.

But yeah, his more important contributions to the world were probably the three laws. But what Newton didn’t know (or at least, I have on good authority from this absinthe fairy that’s twinkling around the room at the moment) is that the three laws apply not just to the motion of things in the universe, but they apply to everything. And that means they apply to writers, too. I’m one of those, so here’s how it works:

First Law: An object in motion tends to stay in motion. That’s inertia, which is married to momentum, which is a concept I’ve found myself a little … obsessed is too strong a word … we’ll say “fixated” with here on this blarg and in my writing journey. I’ve written about it a few times before. In the universe, it means that if, say, you’re a planet hurtling through space, you will continue to hurtle until an asteroid many times your size smashes into and pulverizes you in a gigantic horrifying cosmic fender bender, or until a burgeoning sun swallows you up like the gnat I swallowed on my run this morning. To writers, it means that it’s easy to keep writing as long as you keep doing it. In other words, if you’re writing, and you want that writing to turn into something other than pointless scribbles in a forgotten word document, you have to forget the excuses and make sure you write a little bit, like, every day. Or at least almost every day. You’re only human, after all. Unless you’re a planet, in which case, I’d love to read your autobiography, except maybe try writing it in English instead of the eldritch tongue of star screams and soul-tearing that you probably write in.

Second Law: Look, the metaphor falls apart here in the middle. This is a stream-of-consciousness post, okay? I only planned it so far. I’m going to be honest. I remember the 1st and 3rd laws of motion from high school physics but I had no idea what the second law was. So I googled it, and found some highly technical descriptions of it, and then I got smarter and wikipedia’d it (is wikipedia’d a valid verb? It should be) and I still couldn’t figure it out. Essentially it’s about force and acceleration (F=ma) and all this other sciencey stuff I can’t be arsed about as a purveyor of fiction and dubious thoughts about writing. How does it apply to writing? Fargoed if I know. Let’s play acronyms. Freaking metal, always. Funky math: avoid. Fight me afterwards. Let’s just forget I talked about the second law. I was just killing time until I got to the 3rd law anyway.

Third Law: For every reaction, there is an equal and opposite reaction. This law explains why people get black eyes from shooting guns, or so I’ve heard. And why, when you’re walking barefooted across the carpet that was harmless before you had kids, a Thomas the Tank Engine figurine can stab upwards with all the force of an icepick wielded by an angry yeti into your tender underfoot. But, see, this one is great with writing, because it works in a couple of different ways. First, there are days when the writing resists you, and the harder you lean your shoulder into it the harder it leans back, unmoving, until you collapse at its feet, sobbing and gibbering about your inadequacies. By the same token, of course, if you don’t try to force the writing — if you write what needs to be written rather than trying to force words that don’t fit — then the whole task becomes ridiculously easier, and in fact, your story can end up working with you rather than against you. Second (and I’m twisting the law harder than a kid I knew in seventh grade, who shall remain nameless, delivering a purple nurple) it means that for every good day, there’s gonna be a bad day. For every day that the words and ideas and plots and characters flow from your fingertips like so much cosmic radiation pouring off of the sun, there will be a day that finds you as productive as my old and worthless cat who just keeps swatting at my ankles and crapping on the carpet. For each brilliant idea that seems to solve all the problems in your story at one fell swoop while choirs of angels sing in the background and golden sunlight suffuses the whole, you will lay an egg from which hatches a deformed, pitiful, limping abomination that squeals pitifully to beg for narrative death. You have to learn to ride the wave when the 3rd law is flowing in your favor and weather the storm when it isn’t.

Writing is a fickle mistress. Luckily, if you are up on Newton’s laws, you can predict some of her irrational moods and get out of the way when she comes at you with a knife. Of course, if you were thinking, you wouldn’t have written a razor-sharp butcher knife into your third act for her to use in the first place, but NO, you just had to have it there for “dramatic tension,” didn’t you?

Oh, THAT’S what the second law stands for.

Female Machete Assassin.

Yeah, that makes perfect sense. We’re going with that. Newton’s 2nd law for writers: Female Machete Assassins. Include them in your stories. Or avoid them. Or something.


This post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. This week’s prompt was “opposite.”

The Thunderdome of Ideas

How do you make sense of the ideas that occur to you?

I’m talking here about stories, lyrics, visions, hell, even blarg ideas. They come from somewhere, and whether that source is some external stimulus like a news story or a fantastic article or a brilliant film or a gripping novel, they all end up getting filtered through the mire of neurons and synapses inside your skull. Which means that from the time an idea first strikes, it gets tossed into the Thunderdome that’s raging inside your head at any given moment.

Maybe I should step away from the second person (pardon me, second person) and stick to the first (oh, hi, me). It’s a Thunderdome in my head. Many ideas enter. Few survive to be acted upon.

Seriously. It’s a wonder I can get anything done. I’m as scatterbrained as they come, so when a new idea strikes for me, it’s thrown into the arena with the other millions of things I’m thinking about, which include, but are not limited to:

  • My kids and whether I’ve remembered to feed them / change their diapers / change their clothes / clean up their messes / set a good example for them / actually know where they are at the moment / OH GOD WHERE ARE THE KIDS
  • The dollars and cents flowing through all the metaphorical holes in my metaphorical pockets (because money isn’t real anymore you know, it’s all just ones and zeros on some bank program and okay this is not a conspiracy theory blog) and all the stress associated with that.
  • The fact that it’s winter, and in the four winters we’ve weathered in this house, we’ve had pipes freeze and burst in the walls twice despite our best efforts, so does winter number five mean that nightmare is coming around again…
  • The kids have been quiet for a while, WHAT IS MY TODDLER DOING
  • The scent of burning that’s coming from somewhere and I can’t isolate it… is it the neighbors burning leaves? A car burning oil? The wires in the walls spontaneously combusting and preparing to burn the house down?
  • The theme song from Thomas the Tank Engine just keeps bouncing around in there for no good reason; it certainly isn’t helping me to focus. (Sidenote: “shunt” is a fun word that sounds dirty but isn’t–meaning to shove aside or divert–try using it at parties!)
  • How the balls did my kid dump an entire two pounds of dog food into the water bowl without me hearing it?

And that’s just the past, say, thirty seconds.

So any idea I’m trying to have, whether related to my current novel or any other prospective novel I may ever conceivably get around to writing if I ever finish this one, has to step into the steel cage death match with these other thoughts if it wants to win my focus long enough to be pondered, let alone written down and saved for later. And these other thoughts take no prisoners. They have nailbats and rusty crowbars and spiked shoes. That Thomas theme song carries around a friggin’ garrote in its pocket and will dispatch an interloping idea without batting an eye.

Somehow… somehow… some ideas make it through the riot of distractions and make it into the novel. I’m working on weaving in a particularly good one that occurred to me a few weeks ago while I was writing a blarg post about how I was stuck for ideas about how to improve my draft. Did it arise out of need? Was it the strongest of a series of weak, malformed conceptions of various other plot points I could have used instead, and the strongest survived? Or did it blunder through, catching the toddlers during a nap and catching that Thomas theme song looking the other way long enough to escape into daylight?

I have no idea where the ideas come from or how they get processed. I feel like if I did I’d be a tremendously better writer, and I could therefore avoid unnecessary and cumbersome adverbs in my prose, like “tremendously,” to choose a particularly egregious offender completely at random. Also egregious offenders: “particularly,” “completely,” and “egregious” (not an adverb but still offensive).

See, the idea to sidetrack into all that nonsense about adverbs came from somewhere, I decided it was a good detour to make and I made it. Somebody (even if that somebody is me) sent that message, and somebody (probably me) received it and acted on it.

Where does that impulse come from?

Is that my authorial text-transcending through-line? Is it an undercurrent of subconscious thematic tendency? Or did whoever’s pulling the strings in my writerly Thunderdome take pity on the adverb idea and give it a set of poison-tipped spiked brass knuckles to help it in the fight?

I fear this is one of those unknowable things that philosophers might struggle with through the ages, though they’d perhaps do it more eloquently than with Thunderdomes and brass knuckles. And they’d certainly steer clear of Thomas the Tank Engine and any associated theme songs.

This post is part of SoCS. This week’s prompt was the diabolical homonym quartet of “sense / scents / cents / sent”, a series of words which basically describes why anybody learning English as a second language might end up banging his head against a wall. Because I’m a fool for pain, I used them all.


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.