Tag Archives: pontificating

Not for Naught


This has all been said before.

My book, my blarg, my parenting foibles, my running follies… none of it is particularly unusual or original. I’m not the first, nor will I be the last, to attempt any of these things on their own or, even, in combination. So what the heck am I bothering to write about all of it for?

Originality is a big deal. Being “the first” to do a thing matters. First man on the moon. First woman to become a doctor. First guy to pedal backwards on a unicycle for five hundred yards while juggling machetes and whistling the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Originality equals notoriety. But ours is a big world, and let’s face it… you have to go pretty far down the list of possible things before you find one that hasn’t been done already. And documented. And repeated under scientific conditions. And then tweeted about.

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows sums this concept up nicely with the word, “Vemodalen”.

There’s something in us that drives us to attempt things that stretch our limits, even though they have been done (and probably been done better) before. The futility of that knowledge is a futility that can seep into the bones, grind the hard oak of gumption into sawdust, and rot away the steel supports of sticktoitiveness like so much battery acid. What matter is my voice, or yours, or anybody’s, in a swelling sea of millions of voices? No, scratch that, an ever-blossoming infinitude of voices?

It’s all for naught.

Or, at least, it can seem that way. But I think, ultimately, it’s foolish to think in terms of the big picture in that way; the way of adding one more voice to the howling snarling mass of the internet. In the scope of human communication, human achievement, human history, even the gods and giants among men are grains of sand in a kiddie pail. So you have two million followers on twitter? In a few years, the next big thing will be here. So you sold two million dollars’ worth of books? In ten years, your book will be on the bargain rack, if people are still talking about it at all. So you ran ten marathons in a year? Well, so did that guy… and that girl… and this other guy, except he did it wearing a tuxedo.

If you set out to have a universal effect, you’re setting yourself up for failure. The universe — even the earth, or even your country, your city — is too big to be moved by the likes of one person’s achievement. Nothing I can ever hope to write or teach my kids or accomplish in any other area of my life will push the planet from its orbit.

What I can do, though, is enrich a few lives around me. Maybe I can teach the kid on my soccer team to keep his cool when the other guy is cheating and let his talent speak for itself. Maybe I can teach my kid that it’s wrong to throw cars at dogs, or to smear peanut butter on the curtains, or to take off his pants and dance in circles. Or maybe I could teach him that those things are okay if they make him feel good. Whatever. Maybe I can do the dishes without making my wife ask me to do it, and make her day a little brighter by removing a smidgen of darkness from it. Maybe I can pick myself up a little bit for going on a run, or maybe I can forgive myself for not squeezing in that run this morning. Maybe by writing about all of it I can clear my own head and hammer some understanding out of the soft metal, maybe by getting the minutiae of the day down in this blarg I can get some perspective, like climbing to the top of a mountain just to see what my backyard looks like from a mile up.

Who cares if my voice isn’t unique, or original, or if some days I don’t know what to write, or if I take a few weeks off from the project because I’m staggered? As long as I keep coming back to it, as long as I’m moving forward instead of stagnating, the journey has value. Even if it’s just for me.

This post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday.

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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?


A Problem with Profanity


So there’s another problem with the draft.

Maaaybe less of a problem and more of a quandary, if the difference is anything more than semantic.

It’s a problem with language.  A quandary of character.

See, I created this antagonist to be a real bastard.  And to be fair, I think I’ve been successful.  He’s a total jerkface.  A real knee-biter.  Virtually unlikable to everybody in the book except for one, and that one only tolerates him out of some twisted past business relationship… the details don’t matter.  He’s a doodie head.

And I absolutely, 100% believe that each character an author creates is, in some small way or another, an aspect of the author himself (or herself).  I just don’t think there’s any getting around that — pour your heart and soul into the work and, well, you end up with a work that’s full of your heart and your soul, perhaps more literally than you planned.  And this guy is probably me on a morning when the alarm failed to go off and the car door handle broke and the traffic is outrageous and I forgot my badge for work and then I get to work and it turns out to be Saturday.  He’s a grouch and a grump and he snaps at the word go and a big part of what makes him so nasty is that he’s as foul-mouthed as a dog that’s been flossing with roadkill.

And there’s the problem.

No, that’s not the problem.  The language works for the character.  It fits him like a tailored suit.  The problem is, I don’t know if the language fits the book.  And that brings me back to audience.

I think I’ve mentioned this before, but I’m not sure I know who my audience is for this damn thing.  I mean, I do.  It’s people more or less like me, maybe a bit younger.  And as a reader, language doesn’t bother me.  A good profanity-laden rant is good for the soul, and let’s be honest, as much as it amuses me to toss around the sharknados and fargos on the blarg here, they’re no substitute for the real thing when real emotion is on the line.  But I’m probably not most readers.  Maybe it’s a bit cart-before-the-horse, but I’m really worried that the profanity, appropriate as it is for the character, and fun as it is for me to write (and read), is going to alienate potential readers.

So there’s the quandary.  There’s nothing wrong with the character as far as the narrative is concerned (at least, as far as I can tell at this point in the edit), and yet I feel like his harshness might be wrong for the story.  Which, then, is more important — an authentic character or a more widely-appealing story?  Do I scale back his jerk-facery in favor of making him a little bit less off-putting?  Do I think up alternate ways to make the character unlikable? Plant some puppies in his path for him to stomp on, send him to bars to abuse the waitstaff, have him drive really slow in the fast lane?  Or do I leave him just the way he is , potential offended readers be damned?

Nothing to do for the moment, I suppose, but throw it on the pile for Further Future Me to sort through and decide on later.

 


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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