I Don’t Know What I’m Writing

I mentioned a few posts back the struggle I’m having with telling the current novel; how I’m trying to figure out perspectives and pacing and flavor and all that other stuff. The story is there, and sound, I said, but the voice is missing. And I thought that everything was cool aside from that — that it’s no problem not having the “exactly right” words to tell the story I’m trying to tell, as long as the story I’m trying to tell is the right one.

And I still think that’s right. To a point. Because the story is what matters; the story is what resonates. Everything else fits in around the story, like the transmission and the axles and the fans and the tubes all fit in around the engine in a car. Sort out the engine, and build the rest of the stuff to fit, right?

Except that’s not the whole story, either. A solid engine is great, but an engine does nothing without the rest of the car. The engine puts force behind the vehicle, but without the axles in place, without the wheels to drive the car forward, without the gas tank and the transmission fluid and all the wiring and tubes, the engine just sits there and putters away. It’s all connected; it all works together.

So it is with story. The right story might purr like a kitten, but it’s incomplete without the wheels of the proper setting, the transmission of a proper tone, and the fuel injection system of the perfect characters.

What does that mean?

Well, I’m figuring that out, but I’m also realizing something. I can allow myself to forego any concerns about the “other stuff” and just focus on the plot, the story, but if I do that, I’m going to have to build all that other crap after the fact. And what happens when you build all the different elements of a thing separate from the whole? If I build first an engine, then a body around it, then the wheels to propel it, then the axles to drive it… I’m going to end up with a Frankenstein’s monster of parts that I scavenge from the depths of my brain based on what suits my needs at the time. It’ll work, maybe, and it’ll look generally like the novel I have in mind, but it’s not going to drive real smooth. It’s not going to have clean lines. It won’t win awards.

I’m not much of an outliner by nature. I’m a procrastinator, a figure-it-out-as-it-comes kinda guy, a pantser, as I think the industry calls us. And I think there’s something to be said for taking an organic approach to storybuilding, to letting characters to an extent drive the story, to allowing the story to develop its own twists and turns and energy without meticulously planning it out in advance.

But that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be any plan. Just as you build a car with an overall design in mind (headlights here, this shape to the body, this kind of seat); just as you plant a garden with the preferred outcome in mind (carrots over here, tomatoes in this aisle, luminescent cabbage here); a story needs guidelines to grow. Even if you’re not a plotter, you have to know some things before you take the first steps.

Who is my character? What drives her? What is she afraid of? What obstacles will harry her? Where does the struggle take her? What should her story teach a reader? How should the story “feel”?

A story can, will, and probably should grow organically to fill in gaps and create surprise in the mind of the readers (and the author!). But for a gap to exist, you have to have the substance around the gap. The story isn’t going to build skeleton and muscle and blood all on its own. The framework has to be there to be built upon. And that means taking a hard look at the planning that’s gone into the story so far.

If I’m honest, I’ve sold short the preparatory work on this project. The story, as a result, is looking more like the Frankenstein’s monster than the smooth, sharp Cadillac I want. The good news, though, is that it’s never too late to start; never too late to turn the floodlights on and take the hard look at the story that it needs. And, seeing what it needs, the only thing left to do is to keep writing. Rather than just letting the story shape itself, shape it with the end in mind. Start taking stabs at the tone-setting language, start planting now the seeds which must blossom by the end.

Yes, you can fix it all in post. But that’s a lot of work to shrug off on your future self.

Time to face facts and start doing the legwork this story deserves.

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.

Take the Long Way Home (some writing advice to my future self)

I just finished the first act of Accidentally Inspired.

This was a surprise to me.  I hadn’t been writing it with a 3-act structure in mind, though certainly I’m aware that stories tend to read well when there’s a structure like that in place (problem is introduced in the first act, characters bang their heads against the problem in the second act, problem is resolved in the third act).  Nonetheless, I’ve never been much of a planner.  In storytelling, I like to learn who the characters are, decide what the central problem is, and then simply write the characters and let them figure it out.

In retrospect, this might be why I’ve burned myself out on writing in the past.  Because as much as any character worth his salt can surely find his way to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, it helps if there’s a trail of breadcrumbs, a map, or ANY SEMBLANCE OF ANYTHING TELLING YOU YOU’RE MOVING IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION.  Up until the current project — and I mean that as literally as I possibly can mean it, as in I took action against this problem TODAY following my Project writing session — here’s how I write.

Step 1: The idea strikes.

Step 2: A few days / weeks / months pass in which the idea putters around my head like a hobo looking for change.  If the idea is a good one, it will grow, drawing my focus and attention to it like protoplanets gathered matter in the infant solar system.  If it sucks, it withers and dies like every tomato plant I have ever tried to grow.

Step 3: I start to write.  Notice there is no “planning” step.  I simply pick a moment at the beginning of the story and begin to write it.

Step 4: In a flurry of energy and excitement, I write several scenes / pages, typically about five to ten pages or so, and maybe I even take a few character notes (not PLOT notes, you know, things that would help me to tell the story and make sure things stay interesting, but CHARACTER notes, so that I know exactly what kind of patent leather shoes to put on the ANTZhole lawyer character when he arrives at the end of the first act because THESE ARE THINGS THAT MATTER).  Then I get distracted with something; let’s say that it’s painting a bathroom or replacing some light fixtures and definitely not watching Seinfeld reruns.

Step 5: The idea falls from the pockets of my mind like a discarded candy wrapper, to lie forgotten in the ditches of my memory for a couple years, until it reoccurs to me out of nowhere (probably while I’m, again, patching some drywall, and definitely not watching the Lord of the Rings films again), at which point I think, oh yeah, I started writing that idea a while back, I wonder if I still have my notes on it somewhere?

Step 6: While looking for the notes on the original idea, I have an idea for another idea, and the process begins again, cycling back on itself into infinity.  This can occur once every few months or every few years.

So, how can I be sure that it’s FOR REALZ this time and not just an extended step 4?

I’m glad I asked.  For one, and I really can’t pinpoint the exact reason for it now more than at any other time, but I simply want to make it happen.  There’s more drive there and, frankly, I don’t want to question it too much, I just want to ride it like the strong wind that it is.  For another, as I mentioned above, I’ve taken some proactive steps to make sure I don’t bog down.  Like salting the roads before an ice storm (and I live in Atlanta, so enjoy the stupidity and futility of that simile), this will keep my sharknado from spinning out of control.

So I’ve outlined some high points for the story to follow.  Not a rock-solid outline — technically I already have that in the form of the stage play, though in a lot of ways that’s out the window if it’s anything other than a ROUGH outline — but rather some tentpole moments, as my kung-fu master Chuck Wendig would call them (if Douglas Adams is my spirit guide, Chuck is my ANTZ-kicking bearded ninja guru, perching on treetops and dispensing wisdom and beatdowns with one hand tied).  For the moment, it’s a scribbled series of notes: this happens, then that happens, at some point these characters need to make this happen, try to bring this situation about.  It’s what I see in the distance for now, and it’s by those shining points of light that I will steer through the darkness.

But.  (There’s always a butt.)

Translating this story from play to novel has taught me a few things.  First of all, the dialogue is easy, it’s the descriptions that are hard for me.  Being that there is virtually all of the former and none of the latter in stage plays, it’s easy to see why I gravitated to those (and, likely, still will in the future).  Second, stories are living things.

I set out to tell the story of the play in novel form, and it was like tossing a sea monkey on steroids into the ocean.  That thing swelled up and expanded and started growing all sorts of spider appendages and lizard tails and buzzard beaks and IT’S COMING RIGHT FOR US, RUN FOR YOUR LIVES.  As I write the characters, I keep learning new things about them, they keep doing things that surprise me, and as a result, the story is taking odd turns I never expected.  And therein lies the lesson I learned from my work today.

Are you listening, future me?  REMEMBER THIS MOMENT, because you learned something today, and if you forget it, Past Me is going to reach up through space and time and punch you right in the nads.  You hear me?  RIGHT IN THE NADS.  It’ll hurt me as much as it hurts you, but sometimes you have to send a fargoing message.

TAKE THE LONG WAY HOME.  Sure, plot the path.  Figure out how you’re going to get from where you are now to the end you imagine.  But don’t be afraid to blaze a new trail, to take a turn down a side street and see what secrets are hidden off the main drag.  Maybe the end you end up with is better than the end you thought you wanted.  (Whose end?)

Following that advice has led me, as I mentioned back at the top of this post, to the end of the first act of this novel.  The characters are all stuck, they’re all in trouble, they’re all in doubt.  They’re at the edge of a cliff, and it’s hard for any of them to see the way out.  (BUT THE ID-WRITER SEES ALL).  It’s a moment that never existed in the staged version of the story, caused by a character who existed only as a throwaway joke in the staged version, and yet it fits so perfectly (at least in my mind at the moment) that I don’t see how the story could unfold any other way.

For now.

So they’re stuck.  Tomorrow the second act begins, and it’s time to start digging them out.


*evil laughter echoes*

*sounds of struggle*

Sorry about that.  We’ve really got to get a handle on that guy.

Thought I Took a Spill

Yikes, I let a couple of days get by without a blog post.  Unless you count Saturday’s Flash Fiction.  I DON’T.  Those little Flash Fictions, tangential though they may be to the Project, count as REAL WRITING, and the blog doesn’t.  Never mind that some of my blog posts go on longer than some of my daily court-mandated Project writing (The court, of course, is the court convened by my id-writer and his slavering, ink-blood crazed alter egos).  It doesn’t count for my daily WordCount ™ and it therefore does not count.

That said, I feel a little bit of failure when I don’t get around to posting just a little bit here.  Okay, my frame of reference is not long enough for me to claim a statistically significant sample size (alliteration x4, c-c-c-combo!) but I feel like if my daily progress on the Project is the equivalent of hooking the car up to a two-ton trailer and dragging it down a muddy road to make some productive work happen, then my writing here on the Blarg (yep, just renamed the Blog to “The Blarg”, make it so) is the equivalent to unhooking the trailer and driving 200 miles an hour down a side street.  It burns out the gunk, clears the pipes, stretches the metaphorical legs of my metaphorical engine so that I can do more metaphorical “writing”.  Wait, the legs aren’t metaphorical.  And neither is the “writing.”  (The quotation marks, however, ARE metaphors — for the BLINDERS I HAVE TO PUT ON TO GET THE GOLDFINGER WRITING DONE SOME DAYS.)

At any rate, failure to blog felt a little bit like failure to write over the weekend, although I clearly did that.  Upon further review, the ruling on the field stands, and I am DonDraper pleased with my latest bit of Flash Fiction, The First Wave.  That one took me in new directions on a couple of fronts and, well, I said it already but I’m pleased with it.  Go me.

In fact, The First Wave felt doubly like a success because I completed it under duress: I wrote about 60% of it on the car ride back from my nephew’s birthday party in Alabama.  I deliberately did not name the city in which we were in (oh man, my English teacher brain hated letting that one slip by), not out of a concern for anonymity or avoidance of non-existent stalkers, but because it’s Fargoing Alabama which means it doesn’t matter what part of it I spent the day in, it was still Alabama, and that’s bad enough, isn’t it.  (My apologies to friends, relations, and other acquaintances who might enjoy Alabama, or worse yet, live there.  But you live in Alabama.  Come on.)  So yeah.  Conceived and written under the duress of Alabama.  Huge W-I-N.

Then I took Sunday off.  And proceeded to do nothing with the entire day except go to the store and flollop around the house.  A rare and pretty glorious day, one that merited a break even from Blarging.

But it’s Monday, and that means a return to the breach.  It was a busy day at work, compounded by the fact that I’m taking a day off in the middle of the week.  By the way, as a teacher, calling it a “day off” from work is a complete misnomer.  Because there is no respite.  You have to leave an assignment that the kids aren’t going to do.  You have to decide how harshly to penalize the students who don’t do the assignment and how to fairly balance that against the poor kids who, bless them, actually do the assignment and continue to distinguish themselves from the herd, like golden manatees in a slobbering, sorry school of sea-cows (c-c-c-combo!).  And then you’ve lost a day of instruction and you have to get back into the rhythm.  And then there’s administrative business coming down the pike that you missed on that day, but, surprise, the information you missed on Monday is needed to properly complete paperwork on Tuesday and oh, you’ll just have to come meet with your administrator for thirty minutes to get “caught up”, just come in during your planning period WHEN YOU’RE TRYING TO GRADE PAPERS AND GET BACK ON TRACK FROM THE DAY YOU MISSED AND DON’T FORGET TO CARVE OUT A BIT OF TIME DURING LUNCH TO GET YOUR WORDCOUNT FOR THE DAY IN RAARRRGH BLARGFARGLE *begins throwing cats*

I’m not going to lie.  Teaching is not a bad gig a lot of the time.  But it’s also a little bit demanding and overwhelming and stressful a lot of the time.  If you have a teacher in your life, hug them.  Seriously.  This is what we’re up against:


That was written by an 18-year old.  (The green is mine.  If you look closely, you can see the hopelessness with which I wrote it.)

…Yeah, you might have gathered that I did not get my desired word count done during the day.  But it’s all good.  I’ve finished it up this evening (almost 1400 words today) and topped it off with this post which is creeping toward the 1000 word mark, which means it’s time to stop it BEFORE THIS BLARG POST BECOMES SENTIENT AND BEGINS EATING MY BLOODY FINGERSTUMPS.

I keep meaning to post more about parenting and running.  The sprout has had a couple of gems lately that really are worth relating and I’m getting back up to speed (oh god, the puns have started, RUN [OH GOD IT’S GETTING WORSE]) with the running and I have some musings to post about that.  But that will have to wait.

Here’s a favorite passage from today’s work.  It’s not particularly lyrical or evocative, but I felt it captured pretty well a moment that would be much easier to capture onstage or in film.  Word pictures!

  • Andy nodded at her.  She nodded back at him.  He continued nodding, turning his nods toward Thalia, who received them, smiling, and returned them.  He nodded up at Lexi again.  She nodded back again, helplessly.  Clearly it was up to Lexi to take hold of the situation.

Now, to do some dishes and sleep.  Yeah, I go to sleep at 9:30, wanna fight?  (I do not want to fight.)

Comment Commentary

My favorite passage from today’s work:

  • He lowered the paper to examine the details of the place, but found that the restaurant had vanished and been replaced with his crummy apartment again.  Even the heavenly garlic bread smell had been replaced with the unmistakable aroma of “please take out the garbage.”  Frowning, he wound the paper back into the typewriter, and the smell hit him again.  His aunt Martina used to make garlic bread that smelled like that, and it always made him think of summer nights in the rolling hills of Salerno, except for the fact that he’d never left the United States and his aunt Martina was as Italian as Honey Boo-Boo.

So, it will bear editing, of course, but it makes me smile.  Also, I formatted that on the fly, and the look of it pains me, but I’m in a serious-ANTZ can’t-be-bothered mood as far as my writing goes today.  I’m getting some sweet Word Count in; ain’t nobody got time for all that flowery make-it-easier-on-the-reader Sharknado.

Except for you, reader.  You’re awesome.

The weekend is never long enough, but this weekend was a good one.  Lots of family, lots of cleaning, the culmination (and pretty fantastic reception) of a big work project, and I even got some extracurricular writing done.  Really happy with this week’s Flash Fiction, and really pleased with today’s writing.

I got 1639 words done today, which is pretty impressive, considering how badly I was struggling to get my wheels turning.  Luckily, for today at least, once I was able to break the wheels out of the ice, it was smooth sailing.  But I’m learning some tricks to keep from getting stuck.

The trick of the day is Comments.  I am growing to love using Comments when I write.  Past Me would, when having difficulty with a passage or a phrase or any other sort of roadblock, sit and stew in front of the screen until he could come up with something at least passable to use to surmount the problem.  It was frustrating, slow, and perhaps more than anything, made me feel inept and uncreative and ill-suited to even be writing.  In other words, I’d get hung up on some insignificant detail and after a few minutes, my inability to come up with a good peripheral character name or clever made-up song title would balloon into WHY ARE YOU EVEN BOTHERING YOU’RE AN IDIOT YOU CAN’T DO THIS JUST EAT A CUPCAKE AND FORGET THE WHOLE THING.  Eating cupcakes is easy and that voice in my head was loud, so there you have it.  (I wonder why that voice of inner doubt is always shouting.  Probably mommy issues.)

Present Me, on the other hand, hits a roadblock then powers up his PNEUMATIC JUMPING CAR (note to the future, invent pneumatic jumping cars), jumps the obstacle/plot hole/misplaced character/encroaching cupcake (okay, let’s be honest, I still eat the cupcake) and sticks a flag in the ground when he lands, warning Future Me HEY LOOK OUT THERE’S A PROBLEM BACK THERE, HAVE FUN DEALING WITH THAT SUCKER, I’LL BE UP HERE STILL WRITING LOL WOO TYPETYPETYPE.  (Turns out my voice of inner writing badANTZery shouts a lot too.  Who knew.)

So my first draft is a Haberdasheryscape of stuck-in comments like “omg this part, help” to “MORE BACKSTORY, WRITE IT LATER” to “jesus, so BORING”.  They say that writers are their own worst critics, and that certainly seems to be holding true at the moment.

In short, Present Me is a Darwin to Future Me, but at least Present Me gets to stay productive and keep moving so that Future Me will have the opportunity to do the same.