The Weekly Re-Motivator: Balls

The prompt for the week is “ball,” and while I usually use the prompt to re-evaluate and re-motivate myself for the week, I’m just not having the coherent thoughts needed for a post like that this morning. Maybe it’s the fact that I was up way too late last night, or maybe it’s because I’m reaching a fatigue point between work and coaching and writing and everything else. So, a little different today:

A series of different types of balls (cue the Beavis & Butthead laughs) and the way they’re like writing.


Sports Ball (any type): The game can only be won if you keep your eye on it and move it deftly toward the goal, overcoming the defense mounted by whoever ow whatever your opposition happens to be.

The Ball, Stadion, Football, The Pitch, Grass, Game

Ball and Chain: No, not your wife (or husband!); sometimes the project gets heavy, like a weight attached to your 20’s era black-and-white striped prisoner’s leg. We have to know when to set the project aside and focus on something else to relieve us of the weight and the stress.

Caught, Prison, Chain, Metal, Fig, Ball

Snow Ball: The project rolls downhill, gathering snow and twigs and squirrels and whatever it rolls over. When it’s moving under its own weight, stay out of its way.

Idiot Ball: A tvtropes favorite of mine. The idiot ball is a metaphorical object carried by a character who is being hopelessly obtuse and overlooking something obvious that would solve the problem of the day. If you’re not careful, this can become you. Double-check yourself from time to time to make sure the problems and solutions you’ve created actually make sense.

Ballroom dance: Sometimes the narrative needs to be as graceful as one: every step measured, every gesture flawless. Of course, the opposite is also true:

Latin, Dance, Tango, Ballroom, Dancing Couple

Wrecking Ball: Sometimes the narrative needs some devastation. Hop on the wrecking ball and smash it through some walls, knock down some central constructs, destroy what you thought your story was all about. Then rebuild it better than before.

Ball of Yarn: It seems like a good idea to have tons of different storylines woven together into an un-tangle-able knot of overlapping conflicts. But too much of a good thing quickly becomes a bad thing. The central conflict of a story has to be straightforward, though not necessarily simple. Less ball-of-yarn, more frayed sweater. Tugging on that loose thread should lead us inexorably toward the end of the story.

Wool, Yarn, Balls, Hobbies, Craft, Knitting, Needlework

Ball Lightning: one of those things which doesn’t seem like it should exist, and maybe/probably it doesn’t. This is a ball of pure condensed energy that falls to earth, rolls around unpredictably, then blows the fargo up, effecting some degree of burn damage and electrical disturbance and, you know, death. Sounds like a good template for a character.

I’m tapped out on this one, which disappoints me a little. So I turn to my readers. What other literary balls (huh huh, huh huh) am I leaving out?

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 Problem With Stella

Spoiler Alert. Okay? My wife and I are finishing up Orange is the New Black. So I’m here to talk about it. Which means if you’re the kind of person who gets uptight about shows getting spoiled for you, you may want to stop yourself right there. The bridge is out. KNOWLEDGE AHEAD.


Orange is the New Black is doing a lot of interesting things and has a lot of people talking about it. One of those things in particular is the introduction of a new character this season, Stella. (STELLAAAAAAAAAAAAA. Okay, it’s out of my system.) She’s a sort-of-spunky, sort-of-aloof androgynous type with a Bieber haircut and enough ink on her to keep HP in business for a few years, at least. And there’s a lot of buzz about this character, particularly by way of the actor portraying said character, one Ruby Rose.

What’s got people talking about her is the fact that, apparently (and I heard this only secondhand from my wife… research is not really my thing around here, and I trust her sources because she’s a lot smarter than me) miss Rose identifies as female some days and male on others. And yeah, okay, it’s the new hotness to identify as this or that. (Personally, I’m a thirty-something white dude who identifies as that piece of gum you stepped in and tracked all over the floorboards of your car. That’s just how I feel.) But the show has always been pretty stern about its characters being who they are regardless of what you or anybody thinks about it (and especially if you happen to be a dude). The show works because of the personalities represented in it; they’re off-the-wall but somehow believable within the literal four walls the characters are stuck in. So, you know, kudos to the show for including an actor who plays, in real life, by the rules that the show plays by in our heads.

But I’m not here to talk about her identity or her sexuality or her gender-bending or any of that. I’ll leave that to Buzzfeed. (Seriously, they have something like a dozen “articles” about her in the past week.)

What’s bugging me about her is her character’s narrative drift.

See, if OITNB teaches us anything, it’s that you don’t have to like characters in order to care about them. Hell, some of the show’s most memorable, quotable characters are the least likable. A mother who emotionally blackmails another woman over the adoption of her own grandchild? A former socialite who takes to bilking the system and profiting off the perversion of the underbelly of the internet? A prison social worker who’s sometimes got a heart of gold and is sometimes a racist, sexist, insecure piece of sharknado? They all do terrible things, but we care about them because, as twisted as the things they do may be, we understand on some level why they’re doing those things. Daya’s mother knows how hard mothering can be OUTSIDE of prison so she conspires to get her daughter to give up her baby, and hey, why not make a little scratch in the mix? Piper feels betrayed by the world she thought she knew; her values are shattered, so why not embrace her criminal side and profit at the expense of people who are worse off than her? Healey, for all the good he tries to do, is married to a loveless transplant from Russia who emasculates him every chance she gets, so to remind himself he’s a man, sometimes he has to swing his man-parts around and show everybody what a big jerk he can be.

We don’t like them. But we understand them, and that makes us care, even if we’re not necessarily rooting for them. (On that note, does the show even have a protagonist at this point? Maybe it’s Caputo, but it’s hard to tell. Not that that’s stopping anybody from watching.) All these characters, for better or worse, want things, and because we care about the characters, we either want them to get those things in sympathy, or we want them not to get those things out of schadenfreude.

Which brings me to Stella. (STELLAAAAAAAAAA. Okay, last time.) I don’t care about her. At all. She’s been on the show for half a season, and I don’t give one randy sharknado about her. Why?

Because she’s a husk.

A pretty husk. A wrench-in-the-works husk. A will-she-or-won’t-she distraction and world-turner-upside-downer hurricane kind of husk. But she’s like a tree that’s rotted from the inside out, or a wax figure dressed in a thousand-dollar suit. Looks nice on the outside, but looks kinda disgusting or even creepy up close.

As far as I can tell, Stella was drawn up to provide a fork-in-the-road for Piper. She was designed to be pretty and devil-may-care to show the polar (and scornful) opposite of Alex, who has grown haggard and consumed with worry and fear. Where Alex is driven slowly mad by the confines of the prison and the perceived inevitability of her situation (she’s stuck exactly where a man who will in all likelihood kill her knows exactly where she is), Stella is so indifferent to her situation that she’s almost literally untouched and unfazed by it (see the scene where she dries naked in the communal bathroom because the prison’s “harsh towels” are too much for her “sensitive skin”, for example). Stella is a bird on the wind, whereas Alex feels like a sinking stone.

And that’s fine. That’s even great. A nicely-turned dichotomy, a troubling love triangle for Piper, stuck between Alex, with whom she has history and allegiance and yeah, they do it a lot in the showers and stuff; and Stella (STELLAAAAAAAAAA. Sorry), who is mysterious and intriguing and probably does the weird stuff. In bed. That conflict works, and it’s even making people mad. (Which, again, just shows that we care.)

Here’s where it breaks down for me. Alex is a little old and busted this season, but we know why. Piper ratted her out. Got her sent back to prison after she thought she was out. Alex fears that her former boss will have her killed for implicating him when she got sent in. She’s tired. She’s hurt. She’s afraid for her life. Again, we don’t have to like her, but we understand.

But what’s Stella’s story? What makes her so light and carefree? The show doesn’t tell us. Why is she interested in Piper? We don’t know, outside of perhaps a raw physical want-to-bone feeling (which doesn’t necessarily come across, I humbly offer). What is she even in prison for in the first place? These are things the show doesn’t bother to share with us.

All we know about her is that Piper wants to do her, and that’s making problems for her relationship with Alex.

We don’t know what she wants. We don’t know why she does the things she does. So we (or, at least, I) don’t care.

It’s not a deal breaker for the show. It doesn’t make me not want to watch. But for a show that does so many things right with its characters, it feels like a pretty glaring misstep.

Maybe my feelings will change when I see the last episode tonight. But I maintain that, if you’re going to have a character appear for half of season, and that character is going to play a major role in the show, I should at least care about that character a little bit by the end.

Am I overthinking this? Am I wrong? Let me hear it.

A Late Entry

I’ve previously noticed about myself that I’m a glutton for punishment.

As it happens, I’m pretty adept at doling it out for myself too. Nobody is harsher with my work, less impressed with my excuses, or harder to satisfy with my accomplishments than me.

And I’ve done a fair amount of kvelling here on the blarg about the knots that working on this novel has tied me into. The self-imposed deadlines, the lingering sense of doubt about whether any of the writing is any good, and the general disarray with which I’ve approached the edit, just to name a few. Last time, however, I pointed out (with not a hint of ego!) that I was done with phase one of the edit and slowly bringing the ship around for the next leg of the journey. That leg starts tomorrow, with all the notes that I’ve made on the draft and the (troublingly extensive) list of holes I have to plug to make the thing seaworthy. In short, the task ahead was looking gargantuan, but achievable.

Then, this morning, I had an idea. A fantastic idea. An awful idea. An awfully fantastic idea, and a fantastically awful one. The idea that I’ve had is an excellent one.

I love this idea. I think it does wonders for the story and it provides an element that perhaps has been missing all along while escaping my notice. It affords me a way to tie up some loose ends which I will readily admit were a bit hastily tied in the first draft and need some serious re-tying in the second. It gives me a chance to bring some redemption to a character who could sorely use some and some doubt and aspersion for one who is a little too pristine and unsullied. I can get a lot done towards the fixing of this story with the inclusion of this idea.

I also hate this idea. It came out of nowhere and I wonder if including it will feel a little bit Deus ex Machina-ish. Including it will also include the re-writing of several — by which I mean more than I can count on one or maybe two hands and possibly also my feet — critical sections of the book. It will mean lengthening the narrative to make room for the new stuff, and I sort of feel that the story is at a good enough length already. It will mean not so much tweaking and trimming in rewrites as breaking and smashing and gutting.

“It” is a new character, and the idea for him struck me while I was watching, of all things, “Mater’s Tall Tales” with my two-year-old this morning. In short, my novel is about characters living on two sides of a magical divide and figuring out how to make that work — this guy’s role would be to keep the rest of them from doing so. TO BRING BALANCE TO THE FORCE.  Well, maybe to my narrative. He’s sort of an antagonist to the antagonists, but he’s certainly not on the side of the protagonists. To sum it up without giving details away, he’s a monkey wrench. And while throwing this monkey wrench into the whirring innards of my story might do really fascinating things to the narrative, it will without a doubt do to the actual machinery of the story what actual monkey wrenches do to actual machines, which probably involves breaking it beyond recognition before I start putting it back together again.

I may take a day to ponder the ramifications of making this change, because it’s a whole boatload of extra work I was not planning on having as I began the second phase of this edit. Then again, the benefits could be immeasurable. Of course, to continue the monkey wrench metaphor, maybe all it will do is break a machine that’s operating perfectly well on its own.

What to do? At what point is it too late to make changes to the entire landscape of a narrative?

Part of me wants to accept what I have, forget this new idea, and move on with the work I’d set out for myself. Another part wants to run with this idea, invent this guy and stick him into the story, then start the long work of cleaning up the mess that follows. I can’t decide if I’m thrilled or destroyed at the prospect.


TheMe (a Quandary)

That’s right, enough screwing around. This post is all about THE ME.  The big ol’ me, in all my… whats that?  Oh.  OHH.

Theme.  *ahem.*

Yeah, I guess that makes more sense.

Now, I’m not here to get all heavy-handed about theme.  I may be an English teacher and a kind-of-avid reader and a self-professed almost-amateur writer, but I don’t think the world or any narrative starts and stops with theme.  Not even a rolling stop.  Not even an oh-I-didn’t-know-that-was-a-stop-sign non-stop.  It’s important, sure.  But there’s more to life than theme.

But not that much more, right?  I mean, for any narrative, there’s a theme.  Any story, any poem, any six-second video of a guy texting and walking into traffic and getting obliterated by a bus has a theme.  Theme bleeds out of the story’s every orifice, it leaks out through the eyes and the nostrils and the earholes like a thick Ebola slurry.  It infuses every chapter, every sentence with its rosy, heady fog.  It’s there and unavoidable, like a screaming baby on a 5-hour flight.  You can’t have literature without it.

But how do you create it?

No, I’m really asking.  How do you craft theme?  Or, maybe more importantly, should you even try?

Theme is bouncing around the inside of my skull thanks to a conversation I had a few nights ago with a friend of mine about a story she wants to write.  Interestingly, she and I come from entirely different schools of storybuilding.  Like, she’s been pondering this idea for weeks if not months, has characters and names and costumes and really specific details of the set mapped out, and I… well, when I have an idea, I get about as far as thinking, “maybe it’d be cool if this thing happened and there was a guy with a thing like that” and then I start writing.  She’s analyzing possibilities and eventualities and the implications of interactions between these two characters and the symbolism of this character’s color scheme and I’m wondering if in my story one of the characters can get away with another fart joke.

So I shared with her my particular thoughs on attempting to convey a grand message through the narrative: it feels wrong.  Or, rather, it feels wrong to start there.  I should further clarify that it feels wrong to start there for me.  I feel as if theme, much like the all-female non-reproductive dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, will find a way.  Like weeds in a garden or mildew in a bathroom, it’s always there, lurking just out of sight, waiting for you to neglect it for a scant moment so that it can spring forth fully formed.  Trying, therefore, to cultivate theme makes about as much sense as trying to grow weeds (not weed, STAY WITH ME PEOPLE).  Why put all that effort into something that’s going to happen anyway?  Isn’t it a waste of my time trying to encourage mildew to grow when I could conceivably be building entirely new bathrooms?

But then I take a moment and I wonder what my story is all about.  I mean what it’s about.  You know, the big about, the one that seems super-important after four or five whiskey sours and you’ve just gotten finished talking about how every speck of dust in the universe is connected to every other speck and THAT’S why the government puts those chemicals in the water, man, to keep us from being absorbed by the cosmic ether, even though that’s obviously the next stage in human evolution.  You know, what my story’s ABOUT, man.  And it’s about sticktoitiveness, it’s about determination and the will to overcome, it’s about magical typewriters and Greek gods and mobsters.  It’s about believing in yourself and accomplishing anything, as George McFly once put it.  Isn’t it?

I mean, that message is there, certainly.  It’s a part of the story like bones are part of a person.  It’ll shine through when the editing and the rewriting and the rebuilding are done.  Right?

But what if it doesn’t?  What if, like the tin man, I forgot to build the heart into this thing, and I’m trying to bring it forth into the world to rust and wander aimlessly following the whims of some tart from Kansas?  Rome wasn’t built in a day.  You can’t build a house without a blueprint unless you don’t much care about trifles like structural integrity or roofs that don’t leak or, you know, functional plumbing (there’s a joke in there somewhere about how my story is total unredeemable sharknado, but I won’t be the guy to make it).  I’m counting on the theme to spring forth like flowers after a spring rain, but I’ve salted the earth with my failure to plan ahead.  To nutshell all this, I suddenly feel a bit silly about professing any sort of “expert-ness” about any of this writing business.

At any rate, I dispensed all this “advice” to her.  Put thoughts of theme aside for now; focus on making the story compelling first and let the theme follow after.  Upon further review, I wonder if I sound like that guy at the party wearing the bellbottoms and insisting that they’re coming back into style.  What, after all, do I know about any of this except that I’m having a heck of a lot of fun giving myself headaches and tearing my hair out over whether this story is ever going to actually work.

So, I’m really asking.  Where does theme come from?  Will it bubble to the surface like a bath fart or does it have to be coaxed out of the darkness like a feral kitten?  Do you have to plan for it for a theme to resonate or does it just happen like water spots on your wineglasses?  What, in short, makes theme work?

Character Consideration

Working on the edit today, I realized a thing.

When I set about the not-insignificant task of changing Accidentally Inspired from a stage play to a novel, one of many changes I orchestrated on the front end (read: before I actually got into the draft and all the pieces started coming off like a bunch of janky flywheels) was the addition of a love interest.

It seemed natural.  Still seems natural.  She’s not out of place in the narrative.  I think I gave her a totally plausible raison d’etre or however you say that fancy French thing.  I like her character, but I’m not like in love with her character (that would mean I had invented a character too perfect and would therefore be a Bad Thing).  She plays a role in the story but is not, strictly speaking, critical to it.  All in all, for a late addition to the party, I’m pretty pleased with her.  However, I’m afraid that she may be entirely out of place in the novel.

I can’t be sure.  I waited a good six, seven weeks to dive in and start the edit, which I think has been enough time for me to distance myself from the prose.  However, in reading this character, I begin to wonder.  When I originally conceived of this idea, oh, let’s just call it ten years ago, the principal ten characters sprung immediately and organically into being.  Each played his or her role perfectly, fitting together like jigsaw pieces.  Now, revisiting the story, changes are inevitable.  As I’ve noted before while I was writing the draft, in its translation to the long-form novel, the story has sprouted new legs and arms, a tail and a few new tongues.  New characters sprung up like strangling weeds, and strangely, each seems to fit the new narrative just as well — if in a smaller capacity — as the originals.  To be fair, the love interest fits in there, too.  But to stick with the puzzle metaphor, the thing is not finished yet.  I’ve got the edges and the corners built, and I’m working my way in to the meaty center, and a lovely picture of a foggy London Bridge is taking shape.  Problem is, the love interest sure looks like a foggy bit of bridge or possibly a bit of misty waterfront, but it’s possible, just possible, that she’s a piece of the Golden Gate instead.  You know, she’d fit the theme, but it’d be wrong to say she was intrinsically a part of things.

Problem is, of course, that now the demon of doubt has its scouring claws in my brainmeats over the whole thing, and now my entire take on the character is tinged with the unmistakable feel of overthinking.  Am I resisting her because she’s not a part of the original narrative and thus feels unnatural?  Is she just fine where she is and she’s only tripping my radar because I’m hypersensitive to imperfections in the draft?  Maybe she’s truly honestly unnecessary and I’m ignoring my genuine justified doubt over her in a bid to cater to a hypothetical audience I’ve not even earned yet?  Probably, as with so many things involved in this process, it feels murky because the mushy center of this narrative cake hasn’t finished cooking yet, and I won’t really be able to iron out an answer until I clean up the story a good bit.  Maybe my keyboard needs more chemicals to properly ponder the question.

One way or another, I’m going to have to make a call on this girl sooner or later.  Problem is, having woven her somewhat intricately into the draft, I’m terrified at the prospect of having to remove her thread.  If there’s nothing wrong with her and I cut her out, then I’ve defaced this tapestry ostensibly for nothing.  On the other hand, if she’s poisoned and I don’t cut her out, she could rot the whole project from the inside.

Like so many other things, the best I can do for now is flag her for further consideration and toss her on the pile of “deal with this later.”  That’s a pile of problems I started in the draft and which is growing at an alarming rate since I picked up the edit.  I imagine that in just a little while it will develop its own gravity and pull me through a ripple in spacetime where my story will stretch out to infinity and the only sustenance I’ll have is my own failed, mangled prose, squealing like that belly-alien thing in Total Recall for me to put it out of its misery.