The Weekly Re-Motivator: No Such Thing as Coincidence

I posted earlier this week about my missing flash drive.

It’s now been a solid week since I realized it was missing, and having now cleaned the house and looked in every reasonable place three times (and the unreasonable places, once or twice), it’s hard to argue with the simple, impassive truth. It’s gone.

And because I’m an idiot, the missing little chunk of plastic and silicone has taken with it about 40,000 words of work — the bulk of almost three months daily wordhammering — on the latest novel.

Just gone. Not like somebody broke into my house and my TV, dvd player, and all my wife’s jewelry are missing — that sort of thing, while senseless and random, would at least make sense in a causal sense. There would also be the lovely spectre of somebody to blame. No, it’s rather like I went to the grocery store and came back to find my dog gone. All of her toys still strewn around the house. Sprouts of fur on her blanket and bed. Leash on the wall hook. But no sign of the mutt herself; just the back gate swinging in the breeze. The gate I forgot to close before I left the house.

It’d be tempting to think that it’s an awfully big coincidence that my entire project literally vanishes when I’ve been struggling so mightily with it over these past few months. Some of the days have been good, but most of them have been a bit too much like work, and as much as I like the central idea of the book, there’s just something … off about it. Maybe it’s the tone, maybe it’s the point of view, maybe it’s the setting; hard to pin down, but the idea just hasn’t caught fire with me the way I wanted it to.

So it disappears when I haven’t backed it up in months, and wipes out all those months of work.

But I don’t believe in coincidences; at least not in that cosmic, maybe it was meant to be kind of way. I’m furious with myself for losing it. I’m ready to throttle myself over the idiocy of failing to back up my project. And no matter how the project might have pained me, I don’t believe that simply throwing all that work out the window — literally, it turns out — would have been the best choice. Even bad writing sometimes reveals hidden gems, turns of phrase worth keeping, little narrative nuggets buried among the scree and scrap.

But I also don’t believe that it just happened. I think that, if I were really proud of this work, if I really felt it was worthy of my time, I probably would have safeguarded it a little bit better. I think if it mattered to me that much, I would have found the time to click a few buttons and back it up.

I don’t think me losing the flash drive and the project is the universe’s way of telling me that the project is wrong. I think that me losing the project was my own way of telling myself that the project was wrong.

Because here’s something I noticed in edits for my first novel: as much as I changed things, there was a hesitation to really deconstruct the thing, to shred it to pieces and rebuild the stuff I had spent so much time building the first time around. I did that deep rebuilding in places here and there, but a not insignificant portion of the first draft survived, coming through with only cosmetic changes.

With this project, though, I won’t have that option. I know the outline of what I wrote — the plotlines and the character developments that need to take place to get me to the middle — but I won’t have the fleshy bits, the meat of the story. I’ll have to rebuild all that.

Which is frustrating, but also kind of liberating. Not only am I not tethered by the shortcomings of the draft, but I can’t even see them in the rearview mirror. I’ve got no choice but to take this in an entirely new direction.

And the fact that I’m not filled with dread at the prospect tells me that, even though it burns worse than a throatful of rotgut bourbon, it doesn’t have to be all bad.

So maybe it’s just a coincidence that my project vanished into the ether when I was filled with so much doubt about it.

But I kind of don’t think so.

Maybe it’s just more likely that I’m devoted enough to this thing to turn this lemon — and man, is it a hell of a lemon — into something like lemonade.

Or maybe I have an alter ego who knows what’s best for my writing and chucked the thing in the garbage disposal while I thought I was asleep.

Either way, it’s time for a fresh start.

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.

The Actor’s Nightmare

Why, nearly ten years removed from the stage, do I still get the Actor’s Nightmare?

If you’re not familiar, the Actor’s Nightmare is a simple but prevalent one among denizens of the stage, in which a performer finds himself thrust into a performance for which he is woefully unprepared.

Common tropes of the dream:

  • You learned all your lines, but have forgotten them and everybody stares dumbly at you as you “um” and “uh” your way through.
  • You never learned all your lines, but somehow made it to performance night anyway, and everybody stares dumbly at you.
  • You know your lines, but are unable to speak, and everybody stares dumbly at you.
  • Your costume is ridiculous or unfinished or ludicrously fails to fit you, and you must go onstage in street clothes, naked, or in the idiotic costume anyway.
  • The set is unfinished or worse, still in active construction, and your performance takes you through a minefield of sharply upturned tools, unsteady platforms, and other threats to life and limb.
  • Your performance is brilliant, but the audience is completely empty.
  • Your performance is an utter travesty, and the audience is completely full.
  • Your performance doesn’t matter, because the audience is full of T-Rexes who fall upon you and your fellow actors in a bloodbath of Shakespearean epithets.

Every actor in every performance ever has played out all the ways a show could go wrong in his mind multiple times throughout rehearsal for said show, and in the Actor’s Nightmare they all parade across the screen of our minds with the saucy abandon of a dog rolling in roadkill.

I’ve had the Nightmare ever since I started with theater. I will probably have the Nightmare my whole life, seeing as the theater was such an enormous formative element of my salad days. It’s just too much a part of who I am, I think, for me to ever be rid of it.

Still, why does it persist?

I don’t buy very much into dream interpretation, except in the broadest sense. If somebody tells you that because you dreamed you were falling from the 37th floor of an office building into a dumpster full of unicycles, you will soon find a new job at the office of Forestry under a supervisor named Shwampa or something… that’s garbage.

But the Nightmare, I think, is just another manifestation of doubt, of anxiety, of the rampant feelings of inadequacy that so many of us have. Notice in the list that a common thread is “everybody stares dumbly at you,” as if you’re out of place or you’ve wasted their time. Well, that’s a very real and present fear in the life of this particular writer. Also recurrent is that idea of things being “unfinished” or “unprepared,” which, well, yeah. I never feel particularly ready even to get out of bed in the morning, let alone to ply my trade as a wordslinger (though I did optimistically and automatically call what I do a “trade”, so maybe there’s something there).

Point is, there’s an undercurrent of doubt behind everything I do, no matter how brashly or confidently I brag about it. I don’t know, for all that I love my kids and my wife, how good I am at being a father or husband. I’m maybe a decent teacher, though I am regularly in class thrust up against the reminder that I don’t really know what I’m doing up there. I fancy myself a decent recreational runner, but I’m definitely not winning any trophies these days, and I’m always afraid I’m going to injure or re-injure myself. And as for my writing, well, I talk a good game, but no matter how many words I write, the Howler Monkey of Doubt is right there, with his empty eyes and his judgmental grin.


Of course, the upshot is that the Nightmare fills me not with the abject howling terror of being devoured by an audience of T-Rexes (okay, sometimes). Rather, I wake with the slightly bemused SOMETHING of watching a couple of cats wrestle for a moment and then lick each other’s butts. For a moment, it was scary, but now it’s just a weird thing that happened. The Nightmare is a reminder that, while that doubt can be crippling in the moment, it’s one hundred percent a creation of the mind.

The truth is, I’ve never gone on stage unprepared.

Or naked.

Or in front of a bunch of T-Rexes.

But maybe the thought that I may one day have to will help keep me sharp.

The Weekly Re-Motivator: Categories Are Crap

I’m not NaNoWriMo-ing, as I’ve said before, but I do have a thick skull full of dubious writing tidbits for those of you out there scrambling to make your 50k. (What are you, at 10k today, pushing for 12? Maybe a bit further along to buy yourself a breathless, red-eyed day off over the weekend? You poor souls.)

Today’s rumination: categories are crap.

Let’s be clear: your work is going to be categorized, and it should be categorized. Eventually. Categories matter: without them, we’re never going to be able to get our works into the hands of as many readers as we’d like to. But (and here’s where my novice chops are going to show, maybe) I don’t think categories matter until it’s almost time to publish. Because categories are for readers and editors and publishers, so they know where to put and where to find and how to push your book.

But for you? The author neck-deep in a 50k slog that needs to be completed in three weeks? (Or in the midst of a 100k slog that you’d like to complete this year, more conservatively.) You can give a big middle finger to categories.

“Oh, I’m writing an urban sci-fi horror YA cyberpunk thriller.”

No, you’re not. You’re writing a story about some kids with computers that spawn monsters who drag their souls into the dark web and sell them for Bitcoins. (Copyrighted!)

“Me? I’m writing an alternate-historical period piece romance / spy novel.”

Negative. You’re writing a love story between secret agents in a made-up setting where you can make up any rules you want.

But what’s the difference? I hear you cry. Why not pick my category now, so I know how to write it the piece as it grows?

In this humble writer’s opinion, putting a category on your work is like putting up a fence in your yard. On the one hand, it makes it real easy to see where your property ends, or where you need to put on shoes lest you step in a pile of dogsharknado. On the other hand, it makes it real easy to see where your property ends, or where you need to put on shoes lest you step in a pile of dogsharknado. Putting a category on your work means that you’re saying, this stuff belongs in my story, and this other stuff does not. It means, these sorts of things can happen in my story. It means, I’m going for this specific feel in my story.

Which, again, is great … for later drafts. Later drafts are the time to think about audience, about marketing, about where your story fits. But to think about this stuff during the first draft, or even the first round of edits, is suicide. To use the fence metaphor, you’re marking out clearly defined areas where your story can and cannot go.

But why would you do that during the first draft?

The first draft is hard enough without arbitrary lines criss-crossing the landscape telling you you can’t go here. The first draft is a brutal hike through overgrown jungle with a machete, it’s a solitary sojourn through unforgiving desert.  Boundaries are a great way to bog down, and if you’re NaNo-ing, you can ill afford to get bogged down. (To be fair, even if you’re not NaNo-ing, getting bogged down in your work sucks — lose your momentum and you lose your motivation to continue.)

The first draft is a baby bird learning to fly — it needs all the clear space it can get to figure itself out. Your story needs the space — you need the space — to breathe, to try new things, to make a hard left and run the story into a ditch, to cut back right and drive it through a building. You make that harder on yourself if you’re locked into categories, into preconceived notions of what your story can and can’t be before you’ve even written it.

Stories are living things that change as they grow. I started my just-finished draft of a novel thinking I wanted to write a YA sci-fi coming-of-age piece, and I ended up writing something a lot more like a survivalist cyber-horror fate-vs.-free-will story, if any of those things are actually things. One way or another, I’m a lot happier with the story I wrote than the story I was trying to write. Further, I noticed that every time I got stuck in the novel, it’s because I was trying to force the story or the characters to do something out of character. I can’t have this happen in a YA novel, I thought, but when I let go of that constraint and just let it happen anyway, the story moved along just fine.

Don’t get me wrong. That first draft is a mess. It needs tons of work, and the time will come when I will refine it down and decide what neat little boxes it fits into. But if I’d gotten hung up on the categories, I don’t know if I could even have finished it.

Your story wants to be something.

You have to accept the fact that maybe you don’t entirely know what that is yet.

But, just like a teenage daughter, if you try to force it to be something it isn’t, it’s going to rebel and bring home a guy with a mohawk.

Don’t let your story bring home a guy with a mohawk.

Let your story be the guy with the mohawk.

This weekly Re-Motivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every Saturday, I use LindaGHill‘s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.

You Don’t Need NaNoWriMo

It’s that time of year again, when the leaves are changing, the temperature’s dropping, and established and would-be writers around the country are hunched over keyboards and stacks of paper, pounding with slowly numbing fingertips on worn keys as they push, strive, claw and crawl to make the 1667 words per day needed to add up to a 50k word novel at the end of 30 days.

It’s NaNoWriMo, and that means if you travel in writerly circles, as I do, your feeds are blown up with this weird unsayable moniker, with the braggings and boastings of those who are shattering their daily word count goals, and the wails and lamentations of those who aren’t. It’s cacophonous and wearying, viewed a certain way, or inspiring and invigorating, viewed another.

Personally, I won’t be partaking. I didn’t last year, I won’t this year, and I don’t see the need in years to come, for that matter. But that owes more to my personal feelings on what motivates us than it does to the little internet carnival that NaNoWriMo has become.

As a motivational tool, I think NaNoWriMo is pretty awesome. Anything that can get people thinking creatively and telling the stories locked away in their dark, squishy little hearts is a good thing by me. And there is certainly something empowering about seeing the hordes of writers taking to the internet, each with a dragon to slay that is unique and personal and wholly their own, but which is at the same time a dragon that the writing community sets out to slay together. Swords made of words, axes of pages, slings and arrows of plots and characters all fly at the beast with the intensity, voracity, and — it must be so — insanity that the task requires.

People working together can accomplish things that, apart, they never could, and one of the really neat things about NaNo is how it transmogrifies writing — almost by definition a solitary, lonely act — into a communal rite.

And that’s pretty cool.

But the task is gigantic. It’s a moonshot with a trebuchet. A marathon without a day of training. A climb up Everest without a pack. And while the challenge surely motivates some, it’s too much by half for others. To make 50k words in 30 days requires 1667 words every day, no weekends off, no mental health days, no excuses. It’s no surprise, then, that the path to the dragon’s lair is littered with the bodies of the fallen, the strewn pages of the slain, the half-formed words of the faint of heart.

And that’s a shame.

But writing takes all stripes. Some are motivated by the challenge while some would break themselves upon it. Personally, I know that attempting a challenge like NaNo and failing would fill me with more writerly self-doubt than already hangs over my head on any given day.

I’m also leery of the gimmickiness of the whole affair. Whether you’re an accomplished or aspiring writer, going balls-out to draft 50k words from scratch smacks of spectacle rather than substance. It reeks of bluster and swagger rather than actual accomplishment (“I’ve written a novel this month, what did you get done?”). There’s a desperation behind it, I think; a frenetic surge of energy that cannot be sustained.

Really, what bothers me about NaNo is the same thing that bothers me about New Year’s Resolutions, birthday gifts to the self, and any other extrinsic sources of motivation that we come up with to push ourselves out of our comfort zones: the fact that they’re arbitrary and manufactured. We choose this day or that month to try something new, to make a change that we have apparently been wanting in our lives, but why that day? Why that month? Does the fact that it’s a new year make it easier to lose weight, start exercising, keep a cleaner house, stay in touch with friends, reconnect with family? Of course not. Does the fact that it’s November make it easier to write fifty thousand words? Naturally not, doubly so if you live in the U.S. and have the Thanksgiving holidays to contend with. We take these steps, we attempt to make these changes, not necessarily because we’ve decided it’s time for ourselves to do these things, but rather because everybody else around us is doing the same thing.

But here’s the thing. If a change is what your life needs, the day to make that change is today, whether today happens to be January 1st or the beginning of NaNoWriMo or the first day of Lent or your birthday or just another day in the middle of an otherwise unremarkable month (I’m looking at you, June.) If you’re ready to start writing a novel, why put it off until November? If you want to start exercising, or gardening, or reading more, or cherishing the lamentations of your enemies or whatever, why put it off until January?

We only get so much time on our little blue speck. You owe it to yourself to do everything you can to make your life better in the time that you have.

If writing a novel will make your life better, then you should be doing it already. Whether it’s NaNoWriMo or not. (Although, again, to reiterate, if NaNoWriMo motivates you within your existing desire and work toward writing, then, hey, go for it.)

And if you’re kicking around the idea of eating healthier, exercising, whatever, and you’re just looking for a good time to start, or you’re waiting until you’re ready, well… we’re never ready.

You just have to go and do it.


Right now.

Go slay the dragons.

Words and Whiskers and Woe Unto My Face

About two years ago I pulled a switcheroo in my daily shower prep. Given that I have less hair than ever these days (at least on my head), it’s hard to make any major changes, but I gave this one a try. I traded in my multi-bladed razors for an old-school double-edged safety razor.

Okay, OKAY. Settle down. I’m not here to go on a long-winded rant about how contemporary razors are garbage and the old-school stuff is way better. There are great swathes of the internet dedicated to such stuff. You can find them if you so choose.

All that really matters is that after an initial period of adjustment, I have found shaving with an old-school razor to be much more relaxing, pleasurable, and satisfying way of performing what was once just a drab, do-it-and-get-it-over-with task in my morning routine. It takes a little more time and a little more care, but the results, in my opinion, are well worth it.

So what? Well, the other morning I found myself in a little bit of a rush. My wife and I had somewhere to be, and I didn’t have the time to do a full and proper shave, But, I needed a shave pretty badly (I go from five o’clock devil-may-care to mountain man in about five hours), and I still have a few disposables in a drawer, so I figured, what the hell, I’ll just grab a quick shave in the shower like I used to do.

But they say you can’t go back, and shaving is no exception.

I got most of the whiskers off my face, sure. But the razor tugged and pulled and nicked, skipping and jumping all over my face in a motion about as smooth as that of an epileptic donkey seizing out at a disco. And when I got out of the shower, I found that my beard was mostly gone, but still extant in patches and stripes and tufts, like a feng-shui garden designed by my three-year-old. I needed a second pass to clean up the scraps, which still didn’t get me to where I wanted to be, but by that time, my time was up and I had to get out of there.

So I got my shave in three minutes as opposed to ten, but at what cost?

Worse still, I was struck with the realization that this used to be my normal. I used to think that that was simply the way you shaved, and without a hell of a lot of time and discomfort and razor burn and ingrown hairs to show for it, you couldn’t do a better job. So I didn’t. I had a sloppy shave every day, and I didn’t know any better. Now, though, I don’t have an excuse.

Okay. Shaving talk over, writing metaphor begins. Here’s the point: when I picked up wetshaving (yeah, that’s what it’s called. I know. I’M SORRY) two years ago, I learned a (for me) vastly superior way of doing something I had to do every day. It required a bit more time than what I was used to, but it was better in virtually every other way. And now, knowing the better way, I almost can’t stand the thought of doing it any other way. Seeing and feeling that patchy, amateurish Mach 3 face-butchering irked me on a deep emotional level. I knew it wasn’t my best work, and I knew I’d cut corners to get a shoddy end result.

So it is with writing. (So it is with anything, for that matter.)

I’ve been whacking away at this writing thing with the equivalent of a Mach 3 idiot-proof blade, cutting narrative swathes out of the lumberjack beard of my creativity with a weird, reckless abandon. It gets the job done, but the end result is hardly something I should be bragging about. (Let me qualify. I still believe that any written novel is worth bragging about. But the rub is: I know I could — and probably should — be a lot better.) And sure, you get better at anything by actually doing that thing, but you’ll get even better with some actual targeted practice and mindful application than you will by blindly flailing around with a razor.

All that is to say that I’m going to be taking some time over the next month or so — in the downtime before I go back to editing the recently finished draft — to do some targeted practice. Less raw creating, less vomiting words and unformed ideas onto the page, more consideration of form and technique.

Which may not make much difference for what you see around here.

But I certainly hope it makes a difference in my capital “W” Writing. You know, the stuff I hope to get people to actually pay for one day.