Tag Archives: writer problems

Fail-Safe


Fail-safe does not mean what you think it means.

I mean, okay, sure, language is fluid, meanings are not fixed, words mean what we agree they mean. But origins of words can be instructive. So: fail-safe.

thought it meant some kind of device (or in a more informal, metaphorical sense, a procedure) that would keep another device from failing. Kinda like anti-lock brakes. It’s raining out, you slam on the brakes, which makes you skid, which makes you crash — the anti-lock brakes kick in, keep you from skidding, help you avoid the crash. Fail-safe.

Wrong!

Fail-safe was a term they invented for nuclear weapons. (I learned this reading Command and Control by Eric Schlosser, which is fantastic for exploring the limits of just how wide you can open your eyes in disbelief.) In their early days, especially, there was a great deal of unease that the warheads could be detonated by accident. (Spoiler alert: this fear has not been alleviated.) This was owing to the tremendous number of moving parts and interconnected systems (electrical impulses created by piezoelectric crystals crushed on impact powering explosive lenses which cause an implosion forcing the nuclei of radioactive atoms to fuse). Bombs have been accidentally dropped from airplanes more than once. Missiles have exploded on the launchpad or underground in their silos. Airplanes have crashed while carrying nukes. The fact that we haven’t had a self-inflicted nuclear explosion looks more and more miraculous after reading this book.

But it’s owing to these fail-safes. To really understand the concept, you have to think about what “failure” means. With a nuclear bomb, that’s easy. The bomb is designed to explode, and in the process of its explosion, to set off a nuclear reaction, leading to an even bigger explosion. How could that go wrong? Well, there’s the time factor: go off too early and you set the bomb off in your own backyard or in somebody else’s  backyard (which is not the kind of thing you can apologize for with a casserole and a check), go off too late and you have the same set of problems. Or, maybe it doesn’t go off at all, and you’ve deposited a radioactive paperweight in the countryside or the bottom of the ocean. Then there’s targeting: say the missile gets carried off course or the thrusters don’t fire or maybe you’re just dropping the bomb from a plane but it’s cloudy and you drop it on the wrong thing. Then there’s human error. Maybe some general gets crazy and hits the big red button out of turn. Or maybe some pilot performing maintenance on the plane mid-flight accidentally grabs the manual release lever and drops the bomb over North Carolina. (NOT THAT THAT HAS EVER HAPPENED OR ANYTHING seriously this book is horrifying.)

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That’s a lot of ways to fail. And you simply can’t prevent all of those things — especially the human error component. So what you can do is design your bombs

The fail-safes don’t stop the bombs from failing. Failure of a nuclear bomb would mean a crater miles across centered on some poor pig farmer’s backyard. The fail-safes ensure that, in the event of a failure, the bomb doesn’t do what it’s designed to do — in other words, in failing, the device remains safe.

Drop or launch the bomb by mistake, and it doesn’t arm, so maybe you put a hole in the aforementioned pig farmer’s backyard, but you don’t put a hole in Kansas. It fails, safely. In some cases, the bomb (which is to say the business end, the warhead) can even be repackaged, tuned up, and used once more.

Which is sort of a fascinating metaphor for the writer’s life, as it turns out. Because failure is EVERYWHERE, and it’s nothing short of miraculous that writers aren’t leaving radioactive craters in their wake everyday.

How, then, does the writer fail safe?

By having other things to focus on. Something — ANYthing — to take your mind off the fact that you just received ANOTHER rejection letter (or, worse, no letter at all!). The next project. The next query letter. Your next run or workout. Some dedicated family time. That book you’ve been meaning to read. Heck, just a walk around the block. SOMETHING. (May I recommend, if you’re the high-strung type, NOT reading Command and Control.)

How do you fail safe when it feels like you’re not getting anywhere?

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Meta-Meta-Analysis on Journaling


Is journaling wrecking my creativity?

I’m in another creative slump lately (I know, when am I not) and I haven’t been able to put my finger on why. There’s been the show and the end of school drawing closer, but that doesn’t feel like it — for the last few weeks I’ve had as much time to myself at work as ever. And the slump started before I got really keyed up over that stuff. It started right around the time I started takign time out each morning when I first got to work to write a page-a-day.

Why should that be? I’ve read about journaling dozens of times over the years, and virtually everything I read about seemed to suggest that a bit of unstructured morning writing would be a great way to prime the pump, creatively speaking, to clear out the lines for the juices to flow later in the day. But here I am, flagging on my novel, and — well — just look at the dearth of posts around the blarg of late. Pitiful!

For that matter, I’m not really sure what the journal is doing for me, if anything. Most of what goes into it is irredeemably trite, absolutely worthless, and not fit to be read by anybody but myself, and even then, only at my most masochistic. It’s just me driveling on about any old thing and, a lot of the time, I end up boring myself until I don’t know what to write about. Which, I thought, was why I was journaling in the first place — to kickstart my ideas!

I dunno. It’s only five minutes, after all, and it seems hasty to scrap the practice; with writing, I’ve learned, things sometimes take time to take root, and you don’t always see the benefits right away.

The funny thing is, I wrote most of this post as part of my five minutes yesterday morning. Which is to say that when I turned my attention to my frustration with my creativity and my process, suddenly the thing I was doing to help my creativity and my process actually worked, and I scribbled out a pretty good rant in those five minutes.

So maybe instead of reflecting, I just need to use my morning pages to tear myself a new one each morning.

That seems like a practice I could get behind.


Bullet Journaling Is Not Journaling


Here’s a thing I started recently: Journaling.

Believe it or not, it’s a thing I wasn’t doing before. But the more I read about productivity and best practices and the habits of “successful” people (and especially writers!), the more I came across it. So I took it up, opened a blank notebook, and started a habit.

But because I’m me, on some level I fear that I’m doing it wrong, or at least not doing it optimally. And because it’s the 21st century, I turn immediately to Dr. Google to allay my fears and correct my faults. And what’s the first thing I see when I google “journaling”?

Bullet Journaling.

This is a term I’ve heard before without actually learning anything about it, and it sounds simply procedural. Journal in bullets! Something something guns! Usually I journal longhand, letting the drivel spill out however it comes, which is usually either in short, choppy machine-gun sentences, or in longer, rambling passages. But bullet journaling? Well, that sounds like just bullet points in a list — rather than mucking about with all those articles and properly conjugated verbs and appropriately undangled modifiers, you just list your thoughts. Okay, far out — that’s all I need to get started! So I try a day like that — and I run dry in about thirty seconds. What gives? On a normal day, I can free-write for an hour if I’m not careful. But when I simply list the thoughts without exploring them, I run out of thoughts quicker than a soda machine at fat camp. So I go googling again.

And … oh. OH.

Bullet journaling, it turns out, is less about writing and more about listing. It’s not so much about exploring your thoughts, it’s just about decluttering your head by putting on paper everything you need to get through in the day. With maybe a motivational quote attached. It’s making a to-do list. Setting reminders. Notes-to-self. Less stroll-through-your-headspace, more inventory-your-tornado-wracked-warehouse.

Uh, okay, but that’s not “journaling,” is it?

But it’s worse still. Bullet journaling isn’t just a practice, it’s a product. In fact, Bulletjournal.com has an array of notebooks ready for you to purchase, not to mention an app, and — coming soon — a book!

I don’t know about you, but the moment I hear somebody saying that their practice will change my life and make me a better person, oh and by the way, buy our fancy stuff to do it properly — well, that reeks ever so slightly of bovine defecation. The best practices in life are the ones you can start doing now, meaning right now, without any special apparatus, without any practice first, without watching any instructional videos. Drink some water, for example. Take a few minutes to just breathe. Get up and walk around a little bit. If “journaling” requires me to slap down $18.95 for a proprietary journal or invest in colored pencils or notecards lined off at laser-accurate increments, then that’s a thing I won’t be doing.

I say that not as a knock on Bullet Journal — the products or the practice. I’m sure that if I were a different type of person, I might even nurse a fetish for such things (apparently Pinterest and Instagram are lousy with people fawning all over each other’s immaculately designed to-do lists, which … okay, I guess?). But that, to me, ain’t journaling. It’s to-do listing.

So Bullet Journal, you are not for me.

For me, the journal is less about a stately declaration to myself of Things I Must Do Today. That — and the Bullet Journal MO, it seems (and again, I didn’t exactly research in depth, so, you know, grains of salt and all) — implies urgency and pressure. Which is sort of the antithesis, to me, of the whole idea of journaling. Journaling, I think, is about writing without rules, without goals, and (perhaps most importantly), without an audience. It doesn’t replace any of my daily writing, rather, it sets the tone for that writing. The journal is a clearing of the throat before I step up to the microphone. A deep-knee bend before approaching the starting line. A rev of the engine before I slam it into gear. It’s a little brain-dump to decrapify my head of all the garbage I don’t want to think about, and to crystallize my thinking about the things I do want to think about.

Here’s how I’m doing it so far:

I take five minutes every morning (and occasionally visit it on the weekend as well) just to jot down some thoughts. What makes it in is whatever’s front-of-mind: muses on the current project, nerves and apprehensions about the day, rants about the idiot that blocked me in while I was dropping my kid off at day care. Usually a reflection on the morning’s workout, since that’s usually fresh in my brain. It’s even more free-form and less coherent than what I post on the blarg, which may tell you something about the state of it. Coincidentally, it almost always clocks in at about a single side of one page. Or maybe it’s not a coincidence. Designers are cagey.

I don’t use an eraser at all, I don’t go back for misspellings, and I try to keep the pencil moving for the full five minutes. And once the five minutes are up, I stop! (I actually wrote out “I STOPS” and conjured in my head a grumpy Gollum hunched over a desk with a pencil and now I’m giggling inwardly, you’re welcome.) I finish the sentence I’m writing, close the book, and don’t think about it again until the next morning.

And, you know, it’s nice. I can’t tell if it’s actually helping my process or adding productivity to my day, at this point, but it’s nice to have a little ritual, since I don’t drink coffee or take the morning paper or anything thoughtful and meditative like that. I mean, I run, and there’s that, but that’s not every day. And as far as the free-form writing goes, there’s something about putting pencil to paper that isn’t quite approximated by any amount of typing in any form. The skritch, skritch of a pencil (mechanical pencils only, DON’T GET ME STARTED) creating words is its own kind of soothing. And the fact that it’s for my eyes only is comforting as well — I have even allowed myself a few unintended sentence fragments and misplaced modifiers (gasp!).

It comes out looking like this:

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(Typing was invented for guys like me!)

Notice the total lack of anything like a pretty color, the discounted-for-the-season 25-cent composition book, the handwriting that would put a doctor’s prescription pad to shame.

THAT’S a journal.

What’s yours look like? (And, if you’re a practitioner of Bullet Journaling — what am I missing?)


The Spell is Broken


Funny how editing your novel really shows off your literary limps. The little phrases you lean on, the sensory language you favor, the way you have to end every chapter, for some reason, on a sentence that is its own paragraph. (Why do you do that?)

Today I’m laughing at myself because I’ve just read through and marked up three more chapters, and I’m now keeping a tally mark in the side of my notebook every time I read the phrase “the spell is broken”. The count is five, now, and we’re in chapter 9.

“He shakes his head, and the spell is broken.”

“The spell is broken now, and …”

“He looks at her, the spell fully broken, and sees …”

I mean, come on.

Good news, I guess, is that I’m still able to laugh at myself over it. Bad news is that I’m still in the first third of the novel, which statistically means I’ve got at least ten more “the spell is broken”s before I make it to the end. Ten might be a bit much, but I know I’ve got some more lurking out there in the chapters ahead.

Course, this is why we edit. You take the hard look to see the irritating little things like these. So that you can take the buzzsaw to them in the second draft.

Ah, well. Lunch is over. The spell is broken. Guess it’s back to work.

Seriously gotta come up with better ways to say it, though. Ideas?

 


I Can’t Just “Watch Movies” Anymore


It’s no great secret that being a writer — well, being an artist at all, but specifically being somebody who spends a lot of time thinking about storytelling — warps the way you see the world a bit. In fact, part of my general unease of late centers on the fact that the real world functions so very decidedly unlike a story.

Still, it’s hard to help how you think, and while I’m hairline-deep in the editing process trying to make my drivel readable and coherent (a task that seems more in need of a blowtorch than a laptop most days), I can’t help seeing story everywhere I look. They say that when your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail; but what does that mean when every problem you see looks like it could be solved with a bit of narrative restructuring?

Anyway: my wife and I are sitting down last night watching Wonder, one of those feel-good movies designed to play on your heartstrings at the expense of a satisfying narrative. (See also: Parenthood, This is Us, or any other contemporary drama starring a big cast with a troubled family and scored with the sounds of a sweet, sweet soulful acoustic guitar. My wife will give me heck for not liking the movie. It’s not that I didn’t like it, I just don’t feel satisfied by it. Emotions are not my thing since I’m basically a robot in a skin-suit. But it was fine. HONEY IT WAS FINE.) And, as we’re watching, in my head I’m silently going down the list.

Call to action: check.

Meeting the mentor: check.

Crossing the threshold: check.

(What? This is how I watch movies now.)

And we get to the final third of the movie, and — no big spoiler here — the family dog gets sick, gets taken to the vet, and dies. (Okay, spoiler-for-everything alert — if the family pet is shown to be exceptionally adorable or loyal in the first act, it will die by the third act. Call it Chekhov’s Canine.) I jump up from the couch, pointing like Sherlock Holmes discovering the crime-solving clue, and shout “THE WHIFF OF DEATH!”

See, I’ve been reading Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!, and I know that there comes a moment toward the second half of the story where somebody or something close to the hero dies, reminding the hero of their mortality and spurring them to make the change necessary for the resolution of the central conflict. Snyder calls this the “whiff of death,” and for whatever reason, I forgot about it, or wasn’t expecting to see it in this movie, or maybe it’s vacation so we were a couple of adult beverages in and I got a little enthusiastic. Anyway, the moment dropped like a a blue whale falling through the stratosphere and I HAD TO POINT IT OUT TO SOMEBODY.

My wife is unimpressed. She’s puzzled, and a little affronted, since she’s in her feelings watching the dad come home, sad-faced and apologetic, to deliver the bad news to the kids. It’s kind of a bolt-from-the-blue moment in the story. The dog isn’t really relevant to the narrative at all. But I saw it — and SEE it — for what it is: a cattle prod up the posterior of the protagonist to get him hustling into the final third of the movie. I try explaining this to her with lots of full-bodied gesticulation and noises about character development and guttural grunting. “THE WHIFF OF DEATH,” I exclaim again, both hands flung out toward the TV in a can’t-you-see-it gesture.

“Yeah,” she says. “The dog died. It’s sad.”

Which is right, too, I guess.

I have no idea how the movie ended; writing was so much on my brain by that point that I had to stop watching in favor of jotting down several book-saving ideas that I had failed to write down earlier in the day because I am an idiot.

Just kidding: (spoiler alert!) everything works out okay for the kid in the end, and everybody in the kid’s orbit learns some important lessons about life. See? It’s uplifting, and not at all like real life!

Now to figure out what we’re going to “watch” tonight.

 


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