The Weekly Re-Motivator:An Accumulation of Oddities

If your house is anything like mine, the stuff just sort of seems to accumulate. (Doubly or maybe exponentially true if you have kids, and doubly exponentially if those kids are particularly young.) You see this or that shiny doodad, and you think, gosh,the kids would just love that, and because we live in America we buy the thing. Or a loving and well-meaning grandparent will make a gift of some battery-powered monstrosity that belches out Christmas music if it detects movement within a square mile. Or the kids themselves will bring home toys covered in foreign guck and another kid’s nose slime. (How do they get these toys away from other kids, I wonder? My kids can sense it — and immediately pitch a fit — if I so much as touch a stray eye from a long-lost mister Potato head doll.)

But even without kids, it happens. You’re at the mall for some reason, and you think, that’s a nice looking shirt. I wear shirts. Let me give some of my money for that thing. Even though you need another shirt like your kids need another toy. Or you pick up another fancy running gizmo or some inspirational book of quotes or an odd lamp you like the look of.

And it just adds up. It’s not a bad thing, per se. But with so much stuff, it becomes easy to lose track of things. Easy to take things for granted.


And if you’re not careful, the same thing can happen to your stories. For me, this usually comes in the form of a sentence, half-formed in my mind, that goes something like: wouldn’t it be cool if…

this minor inconvenience character turned out to be related to the main villain?

…the bad guys stole the thing that the good guys need to make their lives work?

…the mentor character’s cat starts phasing forward and backward in time?

All of which are fine and interesting and may well reach the final cut. Unfortunately, the mind, like the house cat that indiscriminately murders local fauna and deposits them on the doorstep, also drops off less-inspired idea corpses like…

There should totally be a paper-and-pen motif in this chapter.

Maybe the villain should have an electric puppy.

Feathers. Feathers everywhere.

Problem is, in the heat of a daily word-count grinding session, the gems are indistinguishable from the crystallized turds. You see them float past on the shelf of consciousness, think, oh, sure, that works for my story, and into the story sausage they go.

And again, that’s not a bad thing per se.

But just like the stuff that piles up in your house, this crap accumulates and chokes off a good story. Before you know it, you’re struggling to pick a clean path through your story, its every spare passageway littered with the half-formed iterations of these little oddities that, like the snot-caked stormtrooper my kid brought home the other day, you have no idea where they came from.

The little curiosities are a powerful spice, fascinating and interesting in moderation, overpowering and inedible if overused. Which means that, just like every now and then you have to go through the house and purge all the junk that no longer brings you joy, so, too, does a story in subsequent drafts need a brutal bit of spring cleaning.

The tricky thing, of course, is making sure you don’t accidentally put a priceless heirloom out on the curb by mistake.

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.

Sippy Cups


Okay, Toys R Us. Enough already.


We are not equipping ourselves for a Saharan expedition. We aren’t venturing into drought-blasted Death Valley. We are having a bit of chocolate milk or apple juice.

And if I ever meet a parent who says I need to hydrate my child, somebody is getting a kick in the throat.

Long week

I  don’t understand WordPress or the Internet, apparently. On a good day with a clever post I can get maybe 30 views? Than I don’t post anything for almost a week and I get 50 on a Thursday. Weird.

But yeah, about that no-posts-for-almost-a-week thing.

Busy week. Surprisingly busy. With some shockingly big news: I got a new job. More details sometime soon, but suffice it to say I’m a little shell-shocked and a lot excited.

Meanwhile, a query for AI is about 90% done, so now I just need to pick some unsuspecting agents to send it to; a good research project for the weekend.

It’s late, and this week has been long enough. See you tomorrow with the re-motivator.

The Beer-Can Fix

Beer Can, Marine, Waste, Moss

One of my favorite moments from Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle comes around the end of the first third of the book. The dysfunctional family, composed of an alcoholic engineer father and a tree-hugging lunatic religious mother and their four kids, inherits a relatively palatial house in Phoenix. (I’ll point out that the mother is a lunatic who happens to be religious, rather than a religious person who is, by extension, a lunatic). The house has termites, though, and before long the floors become unstable, to the point where a misplaced step results in somebody’s foot going through the floor. This proceeds until it can’t any longer, at which point the father enacts a fix which is simultaneously brilliant and idiotic. He buys a six-pack of beer. Downs one. Uses his tin snips to turn the can into a little metal tile. Then hammers the can down over the hole. This process repeats anytime the family kicks a new hole in the floor, which is often. It’s the height of pragmatism — he’s going to drink anyway, so why not use it to fix the floor — and ridiculousness — picture the lovely parquet floor pockmarked with Budweisers and PBRs.

And I have a similar favorite moment in Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Dude’s hog has a problem with its steering. They know that the repair that’s needed (some sort of ionized stripping installed around the axle or whatever) will be prohibitively expensive; several hundred bucks. The narrator points out that the repair can be effected — not as a stop-gap measure, but well and truly fixed — by snipping a beer can open, cutting it to fit, and wrapping the strip around the steering bits (I don’t cars, sorry NOT SORRY). The beer can, which is oxidized (or un-oxidized or whatever) on the liquid side so as to safely contain the beer, serves as a perfect insulator that won’t break down or rust over time. But the dude isn’t about to have his brand-new motorcycle, the epitome of engineering, repaired by a lowly can of beer. He doesn’t accept that it could work. So he drives it with the janky steering until he can overpay for a “proper” repair.

Why are these moments banging against each other in my head like literary pinballs? Well, I’m nearing the end of the edit on my first novel, and I’m ironing out the last few problems. Spoiler-free, the problems are: I’ve got some characters who pull a disappearing act when they shouldn’t, and others who don’t pull a disappearing act when they should. I’d been mulling the problem for a few days when a startlingly simple solution struck me.

And then today it struck me that maybe the solution was too simple. Too pat. Too surface-level. Maybe I was patching my busted floor with a spent beer can. So I find myself wondering whether I’m fixing these last few problems “properly”. Whether, a la The Glass Castle, I’m using ridiculous if not trashy easy fixes for problems that need deep, structural focus and foundational repair. Or, whether, a la Zen, I’m overthinking things and the beer can is not only adequate, but more elegant and simple than a highfalutin ground-up rethink.

At this point it’s probably impossible for me to know. I mean, I didn’t catch this mistake on my first read-through (nor did one of my readers, actually). My wife caught it. (Thanks, wife!) So the fix probably will look equally fine to me.

There’s only one thing that’s actually clear in all of this.

Beer fixes everything.

If only I liked beer.

Things Writers Need — Sanctuary

This week, in “Things Writers Need,” perhaps the last of the BIG ideas: a sanctuary.  If the series is to continue, it’ll have to start diving into the nitty-gritty, the finer, more specific things.  Lots to ponder.  But at any rate, the Sanctuary.

Let’s get one thing clear: writing is hard.  To be specific: coming up with ideas is hard, writing the ideas down in a coherent and meaningful way is hard, making the time to write is hard, not getting distracted from writing is hard.

On a good day, writing is like chasing butterflies with a net that instead of a net uses bubbles.  Just when you think you’ve snagged one of the buggers, the net bursts and you have to dunk your wand in the solution again.  (That’s not nearly as sexual as it sounded coming out.)  On a bad day, you have no net and must entice the buggers to land in your mouth using only the hypnotic ululations of your tongue.  (Also not directly intended to be sexual.)

On a good day, you’re tracking the movement of radioactive particles through the vacuum of space, standing in your backyard with a whacked-together dish of ceramic and tinfoil hoping to snare quarks from the ether.  On a bad day, meteorites are smashing your house to bits and your dish is on fire, and also the quarks are superheated and are burning your satellite dish to a cinder.  Burning it for a second time.

On a good day, you’re on the Atlanta perimeter trying to catch somebody using a turn signal.  On a bad day, the interstate has snowed under and everybody’s walking home.  Except you’re still in Atlanta and the walk home takes a day and a half.

That is to say that if you’re going to write properly, you need supreme focus, free from as many distractions as possible.  You need a sanctuary.  A safe haven from the world.  A bunker to protect you from the bombs, big and small, that blow up every day in your world.  A soundproof chamber to block out the low drone of life.  A treehouse you can climb into to escape the leaping jackals.  A little bubble of air at the bottom of the ocean.

Ideally, this would be a room of your own.  A room free of needless ornament and away from regular foot traffic, or maybe full of little bric-a-brac (is bric-a-brac plural?) that inspire you or fill your head with strange and wonderful ideas, and just off the hallway so that you can hear the soothing sound of footsteps as your significant other or your kids or your cats or your hamsters or the neighborhood dog approaches.  A room that has no television, or maybe one that has a television receiving no signal so that it only plays soft soothing static, or perhaps one hooked up to a DVD playing old episodes of Leave it to Beaver on repeat because that’s what stimulates your brain.  A room with no windows, or maybe a window overlooking the dense cruel cityscape below, or a window overlooking your children’s playground, or the soft contours of a white-sand beach, or the sweeping majesty of the Appalachians, or a painted backdrop of unicorns leaping over rainbows and farting out quarks for you to catch in your satellite dish.

Look, the makeup of the room is not a standardized thing; it should have the things that benefit the writer’s process in it, and it should forcefully reject anything that obstructs that process.  Writers need a space that keeps their heads level.  A space that can shut out the demons and distractions and the e-mails and the worries and the crises and the bills and…

Okay, I’m actually stressing myself out a little bit thinking about all the things that get in the way when I’m trying to write.  The simple fact is that there is no end to the stream of things that will try to stop a writer from writing on any given day.  If the writer is not equipped to fend those things off, they will sweep him under like so many tons of thrashing white water and deposit his soggy corpse with the rest of the broken dreams at the shattered delta of Unfinished Projects.  A simple place to write is one of the best defenses for keeping those things at bay.  It doesn’t have to be lush and finely furnished.  It doesn’t have to be lined with polished mahogany or stocked with leather-bound books or busts of famous dead people.  It doesn’t have to overlook a sunlit veranda or a tranquil garden.  It doesn’t even have to smell like scotch and candlewax.  It just has to be a place that makes a writer feel comfortable and safe and relaxed and creative.  It helps if it has a door.  But you know what?  It doesn’t even have to be a room.  It just needs to be a space where you do your writing.  Thoughts are semi-tangible things, I think.  Bits of them bleed out and seep into the walls, the floorboards.  They mingle with the air, and discolor the carpet over time.  You need that space to soak up the essence of your thoughts so that on the days when the ideas don’t want to flow, you can stew in those ambient thoughts to release some of the locked-in juices.

I’m lucky in that, at work, I can sneak a half hour at lunchtime, close my door and be alone with my thoughts in total silence if I like.  I’m not so lucky in that my house (which my wife and I once thought so huge and cavernous) affords me no such luxury.  Between two babies’ bedrooms, our bedroom, and a guest room (which has also sort of become a makeshift library and cat bedroom), there is no sanctuary to be found.  The best I have is the use of the desk adjacent to the kitchen, which butts up against the stairs which are essentially the heart of the house.  There’s no door, even, to shut the world out.  Also, of course, when I’m at home, I’m Dad, which means I am always on call.  So I have to make the most of my time at work and enjoy what little sanctuary can be had while I’m there.

That’s not to say that I can’t write at home.  I can, and often do.  But it only works because I’ve talked to my wife and she respects my time and space while I’m writing, provided I don’t ask for too much of it.  It works because I take that time when the kids are asleep and don’t need my attention.  It works, in short, because it has to work and because I make it work.

That said, when we ever get around to buying a new house, it’s gonna have to have at least a walk-in closet or something I can turn into a study.  You know, in addition to the basement we need, and the bathrooms with reasonable fixtures, and the less ridiculous plumbing situation, and a lot fewer trees in the backyard, and a porch that isn’t falling apart, and…

Sorry, I got distracted.

What’s the most important thing inside (or outside) your writing sanctuary?