Tag Archives: writer problems

Progress, Quantified


So here’s what’s going on with my current project:

It’s a Superhero story (I’m currently reading Save the Cat, which, if you haven’t read it as a writer, I can only encourage you to pick it up right away, even if you’re not writing screenplays) about a guy in a family of supers who has no powers himself. So he’s a little jaded. When he finally develops an ability of his own, he quickly finds himself at the top of the food chain and sets about a plan to wipe out supers forever.

It’s an idea I love that I kicked around in the ol’ brain for a good couple years before I wrote the first words, and once I did start writing it, it really took on a life of its own, as they say. Lots of twists and turns grew organically out of the thing, which is just one of the measures I use to tell me when an idea is worth pursuing.

And now, as I find myself neck-deep in rewrites and edits, the story is growing out of control like a Mogwai tossed in the deep end of the pool. Every day or two, I have an idea for something I want to add to the story, some twist to throw in the road. Every time I re-read something, the characters seem to be speaking to me: that doesn’t make sense, I should be doing THIS instead.

Gremmy

Playing whack-a-mole with ideas like this is frustrating: obviously not everything that springs to mind can make it to the page. Every widget you add over here throws things out of balance over there, and if you’re not careful, the story will go to pieces trying to accomodate everything. But it’s also encouraging, because it makes every writing session exciting. Every page is Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get.

So every day is taxing work — pruning here, shaping here, splicing here, all without end — but it’s also fulfilling and of late, it’s actually been enjoyable. Like I wrote yesterday, the words are coming easier and faster of late. Given the loggerheads I was at with my other project, I’m taking all this as just another sign I’m on the right path, moving in the right direction.

Maybe I’ll even set a deadline, soon.

(I haven’t given myself a deadline in over a year.)

*flies into panic*

*jumps out the window*

This post is part of Stream-of-Consciousness Saturday. Today’s prompt was “the 6th, 7th, and 8th word of the page of the nearest publication. That happened to be “at the top”, from my current read, Otherworld, by Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller.

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Metaphor Monday: Jumpin’ Jellyfish – it’s notebook time!


Guest post today, which means — rarity of rarities! — we actually have Metaphor Monday on Monday!

Make sure you double back to Glenavailable’s Scenic Writer’s Shack once you’re done here.

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Jellyfish evaporate in the sun.

So do ideas if you don’t write them down.

That’s why for a large number of years I’ve kept a series of what I ambitiously refer to as ‘writer’s notebooks’ Those saddle-stitch bound, dog-eared ones from three decades past are long gone now of course, but I still have in my possession two dating back to the early 2000’s. Both spiral-bound, one sporting a bubblegum pink cover the other aqua-marine, together they’re overflowing with what might best be labelled ‘fragments’.

These fragments include overheard snippets of dialogue from real life, television and movies, lists of unusual people and place names, beginnings or middles of ideas for stories, life quotes, mixed metaphors, creative insults, lifted descriptive passages from news articles and novels, jokes, self-deprecating remarks, even a couple of useful phrases to pull off a 1980’s era Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonation (” I got my uzi-nine millimetre!”). And all of it written in a penmanship so poor much of it is bordering on illegible.

I was leafing thru ‘aquamarine’ just the other day.

In it I found the aforementioned assorted bric-a-brac wordery, including obituary type notes for the late English actor Dudley Moore (1935 – 2002). My scribble included the date he passed away (which, checking now, I realize I had gotten wrong), the fact he was only five feet two inches tall and the description of him as a sex ‘thimble’. Clearly at the time I regarded this quip as worthy of recording but up until this moment I’ve never found the opportunity to repeat it.

On other occasions however I’ve had cause to be thankful only a relatively short time down the track from the original transcribing that I made the effort to jot down, often in the dark while watching a television screen, of some overheard one-of-a-kind wisecrack or pearly good utterance.

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The 29 acre island of Little Ross (complete with lighthouse) located off the southern coast of Scotland.

One relatively recent example of this occurred while viewing the despair-ridden and blood-splattered nightly bulletin known as the six ‘o clock news. On came one of those lighter human interest stories they insert to dilute the ‘stiff whiskey’ of the other stuff. Mention was made of a remote island lighthouse near Scotland called Little Ross that was up for sale. Highlighted was the tragic backstory of the lighthouse which included the murder of a previous lighthouse keeper back in 1960.

A summary of this news snippet made it into my most prized black-speckled notebook. This in turn launched an on-a-whim research splurge conducted on-line and amongst the shelves of my local library which culminated in the writing of a short story about two lighthouse keepers who drive each other to distraction due to the late-evening piano playing habits of one of them. And in direct homage to the bits ‘n pieces power of the writer’s notebook, this story then went on to appear in a November issue of the digital literary magazine RUMBLEFISH PRESS.

I have another notebook (apricot orange with horizontal white stripes and multicoloured section dividers) I use to record names. Unusual names. Names of distinction. Class names. So when Sloane Stephens mercilessly crushed Madison Keys in the U.S Open Women’s tennis final back in September… notebook time!

Sewer police

Only last night I was looking at a documentary on the making of 1949 British film noir THE THIRD MAN. In it they mentioned the sewer police featured in the chase scenes filmed amidst Vienna’s underground canal system were not hired actors but real-life lawmen whose ‘beat’ was the subterranean depths of the below-the-city waterways. The words ‘sewer police’ struck me as  unusual enough to warrant recording, so once again … notebook time! (The black speckled one).

Might ‘sewer police’ make it into a piece of writing I embark upon in the near or distant future? Who knows? And that’s part of the mystery and charm of writer’s notebooks. You can never be certain if there’ll be any future use for the snippet you’ve thought worth preserving. But similar to playing the stock market, naturally you live in hope your investment will pay a nice dividend somewhere down the track.

Writer’s notebooks that are intended on capturing and recording random ear and mind candy comprising everything from flavoured phrases and witticisms to funny, touching and dramatic dialogue and quotable quotes (“Cometh the hour, cometh the man” came from a viewing of the 2016  Catherine Zeta Jones-starring DAD’S ARMY last week and it’s extremely tempting to remark that line was one of the few highlights of the entire movie) are at the very least a way of clocking in. They’re also a way of furthering one’s lifelong love affair with words and can always be surfed later for inspiration.

Viva la writer’s notebooks!

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Metaphor Monday: The Snow Field


Our little suburb of Atlanta took on more snow than just about any other part of Georgia this weekend, so we were treated to several days of the white stuff. As a guy who has lived in the South for all his life, this is a treat: we don’t see snow very often, and when we do, it’s usually either a sad little dusting on your grill and the top of your car, or a slushy, icy slurry that freezes roads and locks up traffic for days. But this was the real thing. A bona-fide blanket.

Driving around the neighborhood, we saw a picture-perfect scene, right out of the Christmas movies of your childhood. Entire blocks awash in white, roofs radiantly shining under a brilliant blue sky. Fields sprawling under a soft, silent cover. Treetops bowed and glowing, crowned with frost. A true winter wonderland. Perfect in its completeness, perfect in its simplicity, perfect in its total transformation of the city.

It was so perfect, in fact, that we almost hated to disrupt it — but disrupt it we must. We have kids, after all, and they weren’t about to let such an event slide by without the requisite snowball fights and snowmen and snow angels and the fuzzy blankets and flannel pajamas afterward. And of course we had to move on with daily life, too. The trash must be taken out. The roads must be braved for an emergency trip to the grocery store. And yes, the dog still has to go out (watching her do a dance while neck-deep in snow was beyond satisfying.) So, within very little time at all, our beautiful, snow-blanketed yard became pretty disgusting. Footprints all over the place. Deep divots where the green-brown of grass beneath has stained the snow. Wide swaths of exposed ground, sodden and muddy. An eyesore. Especially next to the neighbors’ yards — neighbors whose kids have either grown up and moved on or who are nonexistent, neighbors who had the good sense to stock up in preparation for the storm, neighbors who hunkered down and hibernated like bears when the first flakes began to fall.

My father-in-law called up my wife to lament that they don’t have any kids in the house to go out and play in the snow this year. (Their youngest is a college freshman.) They got out in it a little bit — walked a neat line of steps to the sidewalk and around the neighborhood — but left the bulk of it undisturbed. Unenjoyed. Unplayed-with. What a shame.

After a day, our yard was trashed. But then, isn’t a snowy field meant to be trashed? Isn’t it the ragged snowfield, marred by footprints and muddy patches, that has lived up to its full potential? It’s been played in, kicked and thrown around, stuffed into shirts — it’s lived, unlike its slumbering, undisturbed counterpart.

A lovely, but ephemeral, glimpse at a perfect world.

Which of course puts me in mind of the ever-present writer’s paradox: the blank page.

When you start a project — or when you return to a project on a new day — the same lovely, terrible expanse greets you. A perfect blank page, unblemished and interminable. It’s so lovely and so calming and so pristine, it seems like a crime to defile it. Any words we might write upon the blank page are just that — a defilement to its perfection. A crime against its peace. A hurled tomato against its steamed and pressed costume. I look at that blank page, and I think I can’t possibly make it better. Then I start writing, and not only am I not making it better, I’m actively screwing it up. The words never come out right on the first go-round. Some sentences come out as grammatical train-wrecks. My overapplication of modifiers is like so much yellow sprayed across the snow.

But, screw it up we must. Just like my muddy, stomped-in front yard, the blank page’s perfection is just temporary. It’s lovely to look at, but its true function, its best use, is not to just sit there and be perfect. Its calling is to get messed up, to suffer the wordy slings and arrows of our halting, harried advances. The blank page is never so alive as when it’s strewn with ink, letters stamped indelibly into its surface, the heavy plow of purpose and inspiration carving deep furrows across its face. The blank page yearns to be written upon. It begs to be ruined.

The page that you leave blank is the page that never lives up to its full potential. The blinking cursor on your screen is its coy invitation. Go ahead. Type a few words out. Roll up a snowball or two.

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Pictured: maybe not exactly my backyard. By Simon.

Your yard will be ruined in no time.


Metaphor Monday: Frost


If you don’t like the weather in Atlanta, just wait five minutes, amirite?

Man, another post about the weather. It’s almost like I’m turning into one of those hippy-dippy tree-hugging types, even though I hate those hippy-dippy tree-hugging types. (Who am I kidding — I am one of those hippy-dippy tree-hugging types. At least three times a week, I call my wife out to the back porch to the tune of “honey, check out this sunset!” She indulges me not quite half the time, which is enough to keep it happening.)

We wake up this morning to a blanket of frost laid over everything: grass, bushes, roofs, everything. The kind of crystalline coating that’s second only to a pristine blanket of pure white snow — and given how often we get that in Atlanta, we’ll take it. Of course, that frost is lovely to look at it, but it’ll put you on your behind as you’re coming down the stairs as likely as not. Not to mention the damage it can do to your garden, if that’s the kind of thing you care about.

Point is, it settles in and sort of puts the whole world to sleep — lets you know that winter’s coming. Makes you want to hunker down and sleep an extra hour. Just wait it out. Which I would do, if I only had a brain. Of course, I don’t, so as soon as the opportunity allows, I’m up with gloves and hat on going for a run, with the lawns still slick and my breath fogging the air all around me.

It’s my second-favorite kind of run, behind only those cool upper-50s, lower-60s mornings we get down here to kick off spring and wrap up the fall.

But as I’m out, something jumps out at me that I’ve never really paid attention to before:

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The frost is receding, but not without a fight. The sun is burning it off everywhere it falls, but like a starved jackal hovering over a fresh spot of roadkill, the frost sits heavy in the receding shadows of the trees.

Tenacious. Fleeting, but tenacious.

Kinda like that frost that can settle into the writer’s bones if the day doesn’t get off to the right start. Freezes you out, makes you slip. You can’t quite get started, so you put it off … but then life catches up. Work. Kids. The daily emergency.

And just like that frost clinging to the shadows and pretending that the day won’t come, that funk will settle into your head and throw you off for the whole day. The fact is that for those of us who maybe haven’t quite “made it” yet (whatever your personal metric for “made it” may be), or for those of us who struggle to fit the time into the day to make the words come, the resolve to write can be horribly fragile. A single slip anywhere can derail the whole day, put you behind your word count, and generally make you feel like a failure.

But.

The fact is that, like so many other things in life, the frost is fleeting. The setback that puts you off for five minutes, or fifteen, or even an hour, isn’t as big as it looks. The trees on my morning run couldn’t hide the frost for long, and the little derailments can’t wreck your day if you don’t let them.

The frost can’t abide the sunlight, and neither can the demons and devils that try to stop you. Keep chasing the light.


Metaphor Monday: Imaginary Floods


Metaphor Monday is back on Monday — the planets must be in alignment!

Our washing machine crapped out this weekend.

Well, it seemed like it had crapped out.

One way or another, it looked like it had crapped out, and it gave us a scare for a good hour or so.

It was Sunday, and Sundays are laundry days in our house. So, after the morning shopping run was done and the kids were down for quiet time (they don’t take naps anymore, but we’ve convinced them — mostly — that quiet time is a thing, and thank goodness for it), we took some laundry downstairs, cranked up the machine, and sat back to relax for an episode of Stranger Things. (Sidenote: Now that Stranger Things is over again, what do I do with my life??)

About an hour later, I realized that the washer was still running. Not only was it still running, but there was still water running through the supply lines. You know, that low rush in the walls that’s completely inaudible until it happens when it shouldn’t? Having experienced three pipe blow-outs in our old house, this is a sound that immediately gives me the cold sweats.

So the water is hissing away in the walls, and in the quiet after the episode, suddenly, I hear it. Sweat breaks out all over. I run downstairs expecting to find the entire basement under a couple inches of standing water — but, no. Weird, but welcome. I look at the washer. The dial hasn’t advanced from where I started it an hour ago. Weird. I open the lid. Water is pouring into the machine. Weirder still. I turn off the machine. Water stops. Turn it back on. Water pours. At this rate, it should have flooded long ago, but it hasn’t. I turn the dial to the end of the cycle. The machine spins up, leaves the clothes damp as expected, and all is still.

I start the machine again. It’s an older unit and has some gremlins (occasionally shuts off for no discernible reason, and every few months, like a 99% trained housecat, will leave a gross little puddle in the laundry room), so maybe it just needed a good solid reboot. No dice. The water runs and runs and the cycle won’t advance.

What I’ve learned in my near-decade (help!) of home ownership is that when appliances or plumbing break down, the solution is either really simple or really expensive with not much middle ground, with a decided tendency towards really expensive. So the cold sweat breaks out again. (I was still sweaty. You’re welcome.) I do what any savvy, 21st-century thirty-something homeowner would do and fire up youtube. Within minutes I have twenty browser tabs open describing how to open up my washing machine, how to rewire it, how to drain it, how to rebuild it out of toothpicks, and a third round of cold sweat is starting up (by now I should really have changed my shirt, which wouldn’t be a problem, except that my shirts are in the laundry that is not getting washed). It’s all very involved, very detailed, very time-consuming, and very daunting.

I dive in anyway, take the cover off the machine and expose a nest of wires and motors and dials and tubes. Not much of it looks like what I saw in the videos or the diagrams, which isn’t that big a deal but it starts the panic. I was looking at the wrong video; maybe I’ve got the wrong problem. Maybe this is way out of my league. Maybe I’m making things worse by even tinkering with the machine.

The Howler Monkey of Doubt starts in. You don’t know what you’re doing. Give up. Suck it up and get ready to pay a repair technician. Also, forget about getting laundry done tonight, and start panicking over what your kids are going to wear to school tomorrow. And what you’re going to wear, for that matter. How many days can you last? How much is it gonna cost to get it fixed?  Do you even have a single pair of clean underwear right now? All I want to do is lay down in bed, pull the covers up over my eyelids, and sleep until the problem fixes itself, which is to say, for EVER.

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How I envision every plumbing project I ever undertake

I sit for ten minutes, doing nothing. Then I return to the problem. I refine my google searches. I think about what the real problem is. I search some more. Within about five more minutes, I’ve got a likely solution that doesn’t even require any tools. The cold sweat is back. It can’t be this simple, can it?

Actually, it can.

I lift the drain hose from its pipe. There’s a wicked gurgling, whooshing sound — I half expect water to explode out of the walls and realize my nightmares — but that’s it. The drain hose was a bit too deep in the pipe, the water level got a titch too high, and a siphon was created — whenever water was poured into the machine, the siphon pulled it right out through the drain. The machine could never get to the proper amount of water, so it could never start its cycle. But there was nothing mechanically wrong with it, so it didn’t shut itself down. Likewise, the drain was functioning properly, so it never overflowed. The very next minute, I restart the machine, watch it fill up with water — and then kick over to the wash cycle.

Problem solved.

Phew. That was a lot to tell. So what’s the metaphor?

There are two, actually. One for me and one for the machine.

Let’s start with the machine. There was nothing mechanically wrong with it, as I pointed out before — just a simple user error that caused it to tall into an actually rather interesting physics loop (it’s called “siphoning,” and it works exactly like extracting gas from your car’s tank). Thing is, the user error that caused the physics problem happened several months ago and the problem never happened until now. Which means that I laid the groundwork for this little headache months ago and spent the intervening time dancing on the edge of disaster, never even knowing what might happen. Like an aneurysm in the brain, the drain pipe in the wall was just hanging there, waiting to form a seal and blow up my Sunday. Maybe the machine getting jostled as I loaded the clothes into it caused it to make that seal; maybe the spin cycle on the machine’s last run knocked it over the edge. There’s no telling, except that whatever it was could have gone wrong at any time.

If that ain’t a perfect metaphor for life, I don’t know what is. Everything, all the time, is hanging by a thread, and everybody is running around with multiple pairs of scissors in their hands. Eventually, one way or another, that thread is gonna get cut, and your washing machine is gonna run for a few hours and (at best) run up your water bill or (at worst) flood your basement.

Which brings me to the human element. What I really wanted to do when the washer broke down was hide from the problem. Think about literally anything else. Hope it would work itself out, or (when that didn’t work) just hire somebody to come in and deal with it. But after taking a few minutes to get my head together and assess the problem like a person who has a brain, I was able to not only discern that the problem wasn’t all that bad, but to fix it myself with almost no strain.

Which is to say that sometimes our problems are not all we make them out to be. Sometimes that crippling writer’s block you’re suffering isn’t the end of your writing career, but just a sign that you need to not focus on that particular character in that particular chapter right this second. Just like my particular appliance issue called for a little less soldering iron and voltmeter, a little more flashlight and paper towel, sometimes the writing life is a little less throw-the-laptop-and-all-you’ve-ever-created-into-the-dumpster-and-set-it-ablaze and a little more maybe-just-go-write-a-vignette-with-talking-cats-holding-office-jobs.

In other words, just go work on something else for a while and let it open your brain up.

Now excuse me while I go draft a scene for my new series. It’s basically Milo & Otis meets The Office.


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