Tag Archives: writer problems

Riding The Wave


We’re back from a week’s vacation. Back from a week of beaches and relaxation and not thinking about work at all and HA HA no, we were on vacation with our kids naturally, so it was pretty much life as usual: waking up before the sun, stretching out every activity by about 50% to allow for tantrums and foot-dragging and lost shoes / stuffed animals / underwear, and remember when I said that thing about relaxing? There’s no such thing as relaxing when your kids are five and three and will fight about literally anything if given ten seconds of opportunity.

So: didn’t get as much opportunity to write as I’d hoped.

But on the night when we were uncertain whether the storm of the decade was coming through, my wife and I did sneak down to the ocean to ride some (for the gulf) killer waves. Actually, to be clear, my wife had the good sense to not try riding the waves, but as good sense is rarely one of my dominant characteristics, I jumped in with both feet, and often my head.

Surfing (okay, fine, boogie-boarding because I’m not that coordinated or cool) is a great way for a thirty-something guy to get thoroughly humiliated and smacked around in return for a few sparks of short-lived adrenaline.

But I realized — as I was on vacation, hiding from responsibilities and from my craft of choice — it’s also a pretty good parallel for writing.

To wit: here’s how surfing works. You grab your board and you head out into turbulent waters, fighting the current and the crashing waves to get yourself out a decent distance from shore, where the waves are fewer and farther between but bigger, more powerful. There, you wait until just the right one comes along, and then — with every ounce of strength and dexterity you can muster, you abandon your fingernail grip on safety and attempt to ride that thing all the way back to the shore.

Fun, but also pointless and much more likely to leave you smashed against the ocean floor, unsure which way is up, filling your lungs with ocean water than to deposit you safely on the shore, stepping casually off your board as if the thing you just accomplished were really no big deal as the ocean breeze ruffles your sun-kissed hair.

Which is basically writing. Let’s be honest: life would be easier if you just didn’t. The world doesn’t want you to write, like the world doesn’t want you to surf. Those waves are monstrous, relentlessly pounding you back to shore, which is really where you should be hanging out: grinding out your daily routine, seeing to your land-lubberly responsibilities (i.e. your job), sticking to the land you evolved to walk upon and not the sea which your evolutionary ancestors abandoned.

Every wall of water that breaks upon you is shoving you back toward land. The sea doesn’t want you there — it knows you don’t belong. Just like the writer trying to make time for himself when he has family and job and mortgage payments to contend with. That’s where you and your energy belong, not splashing around in the ocean that’s just going to leave you cold and bruised and waterlogged. But you fight your way out anyway, whether you’re chasing a thrill or an escape or because somewhere deep in your primeval brain you feel like you do belong out there.

Then you wait. The shore — and the safety and normalcy it represents — is distant. All around you break waves that you allow to pass by for one reason or another: Not big enough, not breaking at the right time, too fierce. The waves are the writer’s ideas: plentiful and without end, but mostly useless to the writer, for many of the same reasons: too big in scope for the author to tackle, too small to really hold his attention, or interesting but just not one he’s feeling right now. Most of them roll right by.

But eventually, you see the one. It’s just right, this wave, big enough to give you a thrill but also just big enough to scare you a little. (It’s the idea that frightens you a bit that will keep you writing.) So you jump on it, and this, too, is a struggle — because in the build-up to the wave, the current changes. The ocean draws the water back to itself to gather strength for the new wave, and it pulls you out to sea with it. But you find yourself atop it nonetheless, and then everything changes. Now you’re flying along at the speed of creativity, as this madcap idea explodes and crashes all around you in an erupting chaos of foam and spray — the castoffs of a story being woven from nothing.

And who knows? Maybe the wave turns on you — it breaks over your head and tumbles you end-over-end. It slams you into the sand and the ocean rushes into your mouth and nose and ears and you feel like you might as well be a mile underwater for all you can see and feel. This is where the idea leaves you and the inspiration rushes right out leaving you lost and adrift and doubting every decision that brought you to this point, reconsidering an easier life, perhaps as an accountant.

Or maybe you ride it all the way home, bumping gently onto the sand as you stick a perfect landing: the ending writes itself, the conflicts wrap themselves up neatly, and you step off the board, nary a hair out of place.

Either way, you find yourself back on land again — beaten and half-drowned or charged up and riding high — but not quite satisfied either way. Nobody heads out to ride just one wave, do they? There’s an infinity of stories out there waiting to be told, an interminable ocean of waves waiting to be ridden.

Grab your board.

Or, y’know. Your pen. Or keyboard. Or whatever.


Scrub Up and Slice In


The revision process for a novel has a series of steps associated with it, much like the stages of grief.

First, you’re kind of enchanted with this thing you wrote, and you spend a lot of time patting yourself on the back: hey look at that neat character I wrote back then, boy that twist was kind of clever, and wow this might not actually be that bad to edit. (See also: my posts from about six weeks ago when I started the current edit.)

Then you begin to hate the thing you wrote, because the more flaws you come across, the more glaring they become and the more likely you are to see more flaws. A snowball rolling downhill, collecting more snow and branches and dead moose until it flattens a town.

Then, resignation: the thing is what it is, and no amount of unicorn-chasing denial or grizzly-bear-wrestling self-hate is going to change it, so with steely resolve, you go to work on it. Narrative Surgery. With no training, no qualifications, and no idea what you’re even supposed to be doing, you scrub up and dive in.

The problem is, like an insane spider’s web, every part of the thing is interconnected. There is no such thing as a “minor correction.” The hip-bone is connected to the leg-bone, but in this metaphor, it’s also connected to the patellar tendon, the lower intestines, one and a half lungs and the eye on the non-heart side (which — surprise! — is not the side you thought it was).

You go to make your incision, to correct that one little nagging issue in the third chapter, and blood starts leaking out of the character resolution in chapter eighteen. You try to tamp that down with a little narrative pressure, but that causes a backup in the side conflict while also necessitating the introduction of brand-new tissue in the opening chapters. You set to work rectifying all this, but because you also have a full-time job and for god’s sake you’re only human, your rectifications themselves are flawed and not as focused as they maybe should be because oh my god there’s inkblood everywhere.

surgery-676375_1280

Did I drop my keys in there? I think I dropped my keys in there.

Now you’ve got internal bleeding and contusions popping up under the skin all over the place, and you’re not actually any closer to fixing the problem you set out to fix in the first place, you’re just playing Whack-a-Mole with the fallout from your “fixes.” Worse still, you’re starting to see that the big problem you ignored in the first draft — the one you just stuck a post-it note to your future self on that read YOU DEAL WITH THIS ONE, GOOD LUCK (an actual comment I left for myself around the 1/3 mark of this particular draft) — has metastasized out of control. A broken bone repaired by interweaving itself with all the surrounding tissue. The hive in Aliens that has swollen and spilled over, and now threatens to consume the entire ship. Every blood vessel, every nerve ending, every plot line, every narrative thread seems to run through this one spot, this one tangle of viscera and scar tissue.

And you don’t want to do it. To go to work on this thing will throw the entire project into limbo. The bleeding will be massive, the repair work intensive, the recovery extensive. But that angry little knot, interspersing its evil tentacles through the heart and every extremity of your story, pulses defiantly. Taunting you. And that’s when you realize that you do want to do it, that despite the trauma and triage, despite the emotional and psychological fallout that will surely result, this thing can be saved. It can be made clean again.

So you slice into it.

And as the first gout of narrative blood stain your scrubs, you glance just a little bit further down the chest cavity… and you see another tumor.

Ahem.

So, you know. The edit’s going fine … just fine.

*screams internally*

*dies inside*

*animates self with a straight shot of caffeine to the pleasure center and sheer force of will*

*zombie self continues writing*

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.


Hardly Moot


The prompt for this week’s SOCS post is “moot,” a funny-sounding word which is one of those weirdly connotated things that no longer means what it actually means. Like literally. (Though internet outrage has kind of fixed the rampant misuse of “literally”.)

About the only way you see “moot” anymore is in the phrase “moot point,” a phrase that comes out of mock trials which essentially means meaningless or without consequence. But I can’t hear the word “moot” without thinking about this:

Image result for lotr treebeard

The mothertrucking entmoot from LOTR.

“Moot” means meeting, and in the second book (and, yeah, okay, the second movie), the ents — the living, sentient trees — hold an entmoot to determine the fate of their forest. The problem? The ents hold this moot in their native tree language, which is “a lovely language, but it takes a very long time saying anything in it, because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say.” (Which could, in fact, be the subtitle for this blog, given how I like to go on and on. The worthiness of the things I talk about to be talked about at length is, of course, another matter.)

Long story short (too late), the ents meet for several days before they decide that they will not meddle in the affairs of men, much to the chagrin of the hobbits who have petitioned them for aid. The world is going to sharknado all around them, the hobbits protest, and ents will be affected eventually even if nothing happens to them right away. But the ents take the isolationist path, pointing out that the trees will outlast whatever squabbles the creatures of the earth busy themselves with.

Then, of course, they learn that actually, the forces of darkness are chewing up the forest to fuel their war machine, and well, that’s that. The trees uproot themselves and wreck shop all over Isengard, because nothing motivates you like the threat of imminent destruction.

(I could point out that this is a pretty thinly-veiled dig at politics and politicians with their endless pontificating bureaucracies, but that’s not the point of this post.)

All that’s interesting and fascinating (though maybe just for me), but ultimately, well, moot in the contemporary sense, because the simple, understood definition of “moot” is that it doesn’t matter. The origins of the word are well and good, but these days it means this, so really, who cares?

And speaking of moot points, the problem is perspective and scope. Much of what we do in life, creatively or otherwise, is moot. Pancakes for breakfast, or cold cereal, or skip breakfast entirely? Doesn’t really matter. Take the long way to work or the quick way? As long as you get there on time, who cares? Read the Game of Thrones series so that you can claim superiority over the people who just watch the TV show, or don’t? Outside of the odd water cooler conversation, there really is very little difference in your life.

Put it on a bigger scale. There will be very little difference on a national level, or even a state level, over the life of one person, even a highly influential one. Things take the course they take, and not much will change it. A bigger scale still: consider, for example, Paris. Unless I have some readers in France I’m unaware of, I really am completely removed from anything happening in Paris. My entire existence, as far as Paris is concerned, is moot. Let alone the world.

But go even bigger. In our own solar system, humans have got some manned missions done in our neck of the woods, and we’ve sent a fair few probes out to the far reaches, but for the most part, all the accomplishments of humans are represented by a tiny speck of light in the night sky. A moot exercise, you might say, as we’ll never have that perspective — but astronauts get that perspective all the time. It’s called the Overview Effect (a thing I literally learned just now!)

If you zoom out far enough, everything becomes moot. And if you’re prone to Nihilistic thinking (cough, cough), the maw of that realization yawns wide beneath your feet at just about any moment. Why bother creating — it’ll all be lost to time and the void eventually. Why bother doing anything?

But taking the long view, while it’s probably good for planning your retirement and your diet, is maybe not the best thing to do in cases like this. Any story I could possibly tell is statistically unlikely to disturb the waters very much, even if it becomes profoundly popular. Those waters are thoroughly saturated already, if you’ll pardon the pun. But that doesn’t mean that, for a narrow slice, the stories aren’t worth writing (or reading!). In a lot of ways, the writer’s self-affirmation is not unlike the teacher’s: if I can reach just ONE student…

The truth is, I don’t think I even need to reach a single reader. It’d be nice if I do, of course — and better than nice if I could reach more than one. But when I create, I’m creating for me. It brings me tiny little pangs of joy to make up characters and bounce them around in the snow globes of my creation. On a global scale, or a national one, or even a local one, that might very well be moot.

But given that this life is the only one we get, it only makes sense to fill it with as much joy as we can.

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.


Wrestling with Character


My current work-in-progress is a superhero story about a guy who hates superheroes and therefore becomes a villain. And I just today wrote the start of a scene that kind of shocked me.

Without spoilerating my own story, this guy has a hostage problem to solve with no easy way out. (Which is exactly the sort of problem a good novel needs, right?) And in flinging myself against this problem, a solution occurred to my protagonist and myself simultaneously. Usually solutions for writers are good things, but this one is a little bit mixed.

It fits the character perfectly. It fits the narrative perfectly. But it makes me uncomfortable, because it’s a little rape-y. Not in the sexual assault way (it’s not that kind of book), but in the willful taking-by-force of a thing from a more or less helpless victim. A victim who was once something like a friend. And this taking … well, it’s pretty much going to color the relationship between these two forever, assuming I leave it in (and I don’t see how I can leave it out, at this point). It’s forceful. It’s traumatic. It has left me feeling a little bit icky after the words came out.

So, it makes me seriously uneasy, but it also really gets me fired up about the story, because it fits so well. And it hit me — this is the sort of thing that’s been missing from this story all along. My protagonist, much as I have been thinking of him as a villain, hasn’t done much that’s outright villainous; so for him to finally break bad like this feels a little shocking. Then again, at the same time, it feels long overdue, coming in the final third of the book.

But now I’m all conflicted. This isn’t the sort of thing I envisioned my protagonist doing, but now that the moment has presented itself, it’s hard for me to imagine him acting any differently. It’s not the act itself that has me vexed, though. The real quandary that’s sticking in my craw is that I don’t know if this guy (or this girl, for that matter) can come back from this. I don’t know if a choice like this can be redeemed, and that could be a problem in future installments of this story.

So many questions. Is this scene right? Is it happening at the right moment in the story, or should it happen sooner (establishing him as a real rotten dude right from the go would clear up some of the waffling he’s done thus far … then again, if this moment comes late, it feels more like a final step on a terrible path)? Can a character come back from something like this? And, for that matter, should he?

On the plus side, the last couple days’ writing has poured out of me like from a ruptured water main, so that, at least, makes me feel like I’m on the right track.


Writing Journal: in which I ponder on stuff happening


I’m having serious insecurities about my writing lately.

I mean, I guess that sentence could be true for any writer at any time, ever, but it feels more so now, and I can’t really say why. I feel like the narrative I’m crafting is boggy and mired, like it’s trying to slog through a swamp replete with swarming, biting mosquitoes, noxious muck that sucks at your shoes, and probably a bunch of gators lurking just below the surface, waiting for you to come close enough to take a chomp at.

It’s slow going, is what I’m trying to say. Not the writing — that’s moving along just fine — but the story itself. I constantly fear that it’s lurking dangerously on the precipice of going down forever in the mire. And I’m not 100% sure what to attribute this feeling to, this spider-sense that something’s wrong. The writing doesn’t feel so terribly dissimilar from the writing in my first novel, where I felt like things clipped along fairly well.

I think — and who the hell knows, certainly not me — that I’m doing too much explaining. What I mean is, I feel like the current story is more centered on a single character than my previous stories, and it’s particularly centered on the way this character sees the world. That viewpoint is pretty cynical (go figure) and a bit self-doubty (you don’t say) and ultimately a bit nihilistic (shocker). All of which is fine, maybe, but I feel like I’m spending entirely too much time in between things happening dealing with my character’s reactions to the events, with his thoughts and fears and plans for what’s coming next, rather than, you know, just getting to the next thing.

Then I go and watch, oh, I don’t know, any TV show ever and it’s nothing but things happening at breakneck pace. Tonight it’s Penny Dreadful, for example, and in one episode, a character tracks down his childhood home and throttles the current landlord; another pair of characters turns another character evil and then all three bathe in the blood of a previous antagonist; another character enters a hypnotic state wherein she learns of a previous involvement with another character that we never knew about, and yet another character goes on a murdering rampage with yet another character he just met while still another character chases him across the desert of the Wild West. I mean, holy sharknado. That’s all in just one hour.

Now, yeah, I know, that’s TV, which is not a novel. TV is a flash-flame, table-side grill, while a novel is a slow-cooker. But still. There’s hardly time to breathe in between all that stuff happening, let alone time to reflect, react, or plan for the future.

So, then, I take a page from that particular book and pursue tonight’s writing with a mind toward action, action, action, and bang out 850 words without breaking a sweat. And it’s great! But it leaves me wondering: am I writing this particular novel all wrong? Am I living too much in the character’s (and, by extension, my own) head, at the expense of actually letting the story happen? Maybe the story needs more passages like the one tonight, more swathes of stuff happening with less thinking about the stuff on the part of one character or another.

But then, (dammit,) I circle back around, because aren’t the protagonist’s internal struggles just as important as the external ones that manifest as he’s robbing banks to equip his newfound secret lair with the help of his newly reprogrammed robot companion? (Oh, yeah, spoiler alert, I guess, kinda.) I mean, the current novel is sort of an anti-superhero story, so it needs a fair bit of rock ’em sock ’em action, but without that introspection weaved throughout, won’t it ring hollow?

Just another missive from I-have-no-idea-what-I’m-doing-island.

*ponders*

*steams*

*hops back on the hamster wheel*

 


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