Tag Archives: writing advice

Metaphor Monday: Carpet Conundrum


The new house has these great wood floors in it. They’re lovely — dark and smooth and soothing. A real upgrade over the carpet we had in the old house, if you like that sort of thing — and, as it turns out, we do.

There’s a problem with them, though. If you have similar floors in your house, probably you already know what I’m about to say: they are a bear to keep clean. With the little kids and the pets running around, our floors get (and pretty much stay) filthy.

It’s all manner of stuff. Crumbs. Dust. Pet dander. Hair. Little pieces of paper. Tiny gobs of this slime stuff the kids are playing with lately (god I hate toy manufacturers). Cat claws. Grass clippings and dirt from the yard. Dried-out bits of Play-Doh (god I hate toy manufacturers). Toenail clippings. Laundry lint. Scraps of candy wrappers. More crumbs.

Yesterday, I swear, we opened the back door and the little breeze stirred up a tiny cyclone of detritus. A tumbleweed rolled through the kitchen. And I’m thinking to myself: “I just swept yesterday!”

Turns out that, though we love the look of the wood over the comfort of the carpet, the carpet was comforting in other ways too: it hid the disgustingness of our existence from us. But now, if we don’t clean it up every day or two, that dust is gonna show out, and there’s no hiding it from anybody.

But here’s the rub: in the old house, with the carpets, sure — we could go a week or so without vacuuming. Most likely, nobody would notice — sometimes, not even we would notice. (“When’s the last time we vacuumed?” “I dunno, March?”) But that doesn’t mean that the gross stuff wasn’t there. It was just disguised. Camouflaged. Trapped in the fibers underfoot. Out of sight and out of mind.

Which seems like where you want it — out of sight — until you consider that the longer it lurks there, the more it piles up. And every step kicks that stuff up into the air, into every room in the house, into your lungs. Where it lurks and festers and crystallizes and congeals into gunk that’s got you coughing and sneezing and feeling cruddy year-round and you don’t even know why.

Not so good after all.

When it’s out on the hardwood, we can see it, so we can clean it — as unpleasant and tedious as that may be — before it has the chance to pile up and do damage. So the floors might look dirtier than ever, but on balance, I know that in reality, they’re cleaner than we’ve had in years.

So I wonder:

How much crap is hiding in the carpet in my headspace?

Well, a lot. Probably an unconquerable mountain of it, if I’m honest. These are troubling times we live in, and unfortunately, a lot of the feelings and thoughts and shock and awe and disgust and sorrow and anger and regret … all of that stuff gets swept under the carpet. Mass shootings. Bigotry out in the open. Injustice and indifference to the common man (and woman). Death and destruction and general bad behavior everywhere you look. (And that’s just the past weekend in Trump’s America.) To say nothing of the everyday stuff in my own neighborhood. Work. Parenting. Neverending effing yard work.

All of it piles up, and unfortunately, it’s got nowhere to go. So it just gets pushed around. Pushed out of sight and … well, in this case, decidedly NOT out of mind. It just sits there, grinding itself deeper into the fibers, suffocating the productive thoughts I want to have and making the air unpalatable for the new thoughts I haven’t had yet. Which probably explains the drought I’m in — have been in — during this terrible, awful, no good, very bad year.

And while I usually like to take a positive tack here in these posts, I’m not sure where it is in this instance. I don’t know how to rip up the carpet inside my own head.

It sure does seem like I could use some hardwood up there. Even if it’s a pain in the butt.

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Metaphor Monday: Splinters


Over the long weekend, I built this kitchen bench.

Our old kitchen was enormous, you see. Cavernous, you might even say. And while our current kitchen is by no means tiny, it’s also definitely and noticeably smaller than our old digs. So we’ve been economizing the space in as many ways as we can: shelves over the backs of the doors. Stuff stackers on the tops of the cabinets. Racks and organizers galore. (Minimize, I hear you say. Pshaw, I say. This is America.)

Then, my wife had a great idea. We have this recessed window area in the kitchen. Why not put a thing in there that can hold other things and not look like just a pile of stuff?

Yeah, that’s cool, I think. I love a little weekend project.

So I build this bench. Heavy as a bale of bricks and long enough to store a dead body or two. And it fits pretty snugly under the window. It blends in well enough with the space, in fact, that despite having some family over during the weekend, nobody noticed it squatting there, disguising the economy bundles of water and diet soda we picked up in advance of the storm.

Thing is, it took me most of the morning to build it; a good three or so hours, to say nothing of the trip to Home Depot for lumber and screws and so forth. Lots of frustrating work by myself in the garage, balancing things on edges, leveling them off, toiling to make sure the thing came out even in my modest home-fix-it setup.

It’s a weird thing, building stuff. I know enough about construction to get myself into trouble, as they say; I know a little bit about carpentry principles and if I really work at it I can build stuff that’s sturdy, but forget about making it look particularly presentable from any closer than fifty feet away. (Incidentally, this makes me fantastic at building things for the stage, which — surprise! — is a not insignificant portion of my job.) And because I’m decent but not great at building things, I have this love/hate relationship with building things. I love it — for a while. When it comes to building the thing and making it structurally and functionally sound, boy howdy, I can jump in with both feet and work ’round the clock without even really noticing the passage of time. But once I reach the limits of my expertise? Once the thing is built, and functional, and it’s time to make it look pretty? I lose interest faster than a goldfish in a dark room.

But that’s the problem, innit? Because the thing’s done only when it’s done. Which the carpentry gods reminded me of, painfully, with my bench.

I build the thing. It’s sturdy. It’s functional. Its edges are square. Its lid goes up and down. It’s basically done. The thought goes through my brain: you should probably sand it down. But having just put the hinge on, and having seen that the lid fits just so perfectly, I figure I’ve earned a break. The plywood I built it with, after all, is sanded on the outside anyway. I go upstairs. Poke at the wife until she agrees to come have a look at it. She agrees with me: it’s not bad.

“Is it done?” she asks.

“Basically,” I say.

“What’s that mean?”

I perambulate through the garage, winding up extension cords, sweeping up piles of sawdust. Job’s basically done, after all. “Well, it’s almost ready for painting, but seeing as we don’t have the paint yet, I figured I ought to take a break. Maybe try it out and see how it looks in the space. Maybe we’ll see what color we want to paint it when we get it up there.”

So we haul it upstairs. Plonk it down in the corner. Sit on it, test it out. Yep, it’s a bench seat.

“Looks good,” she says. (Actually, she lays it on a little thicker than that. She strokes my ego a bit. I think she must’ve been reading some articles or something lately; I feel her psychologizing me.)

“Yeah,” I agree.

“So, what now?”

I ponder. What I really don’t want to do is haul it back downstairs, or work on it at all anymore right at the moment, or perhaps, ever. It’s functional, after all. You can sit on it. The lid opens and shuts. Case closed. (So to speak.) Finally, my answer: “I guess it’s not hurting anything here. We can just keep it over here until we get the paint; then I’ll prep it.”

She gives me a look that I should recognize by now, but I let it bounce off me.

Fast forward a day, and I’m sitting down with the Sprout to work on some sight words. He wants to sit in the kitchen while mommy cooks. Hey! I just made a brand new bench seat for exactly that purpose! So I sit down, scoot over to make room for him, and catch a dagger-sized splinter in the meat of my hand.

Needless to say, after a healthy bit of cursing and an unpleasant bout with some tweezers, I find myself out on the back porch doing the job I should have done to begin with: sanding down the damn bench. It takes all of twenty minutes, and at the end, the thing is well and truly safe and pleasant to sit on, painted or not.

You see where I’m going with this.

I left the project nearly but not entirely finished, and its rough edges caught up to me almost immediately.

The parallel to writing is striking: the thing is not done until it’s done. That means whatever it means for the stage of the project you’re in: the draft isn’t done until you actually write an end to the thing (and go back to write all the things you intentionally skipped over on the way). The edit isn’t done until you’ve been through every inch of the project with your fine-toothed editing comb and fixed all the little fitzy bits. The submissions aren’t done until you’ve written and perfected the query letter and delivered it to the inboxes of everybody you can stand to send it to.

I’ll admit, I’m somewhat of two minds on this topic; I’m acutely aware of the dangers of overcooking an idea. You work at a thing too long and it turns to mush. You break yourself trying to perfect a thing which will never be perfect. There’s a virtue in being able to say, nope, that’s enough, and let a Good Thing simply be good.

But there’s a difference between stopping before you overcook the thing and leaving it properly unfinished, covered in jagged little splinters or worse. (Mixed metaphors, for example.)

Make no mistake — it’s easy to get sick of a project. To want to slap the last chapter in place because you’ve been after it for months and you want desperately to think of anything else. But if you don’t knuckle up to the tedious work that comes with dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s and making sure that all of your plotlines properly resolve and don’t just wander off into the ocean or something, well…

Somebody’s gonna catch a splinter up their backside. Maybe even you.

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Endings and Beginnings


Writing only works if you devote yourself to it, day after day, week in and week out, month after agonizing month. You park yourself in front of the screen again and again and again, wondering every day if what you’re doing is going anywhere, or if it’s coming to anything, or if the pieces you’re punching out of the drywall will ever fit together in a shape that fits known geometries or not again. The words pour out and pour out; some days it’s all hey this is pretty fun and cool and exciting whee I’m weaving stories and making magic like a rainbow-skating elf and other days it’s like it’d be easier to self-castrate than type a single word, why do I do this to myself, I have invented a new masochism.

By necessity, I find myself not thinking about the finish too much. In the beginning it’s too far; I might as well be thinking about the end of the Trump presidency for all the good it does me to think about the end of my project today. In the middle it’s a torture — I know it’s getting closer, but like a mirage floating over the horizon, it just never seems to get any closer. And at the end, the nearness of it is distorting, like a haze of summer gnats flittering in your face — close enough to touch, yet dancing just out of reach.

Instead, I watch the ground under my feet. Follow the path where it leads, occasionally stop to check the map, and mostly just focus on not getting stuck in the mud or wandering off into the undergrowth. Think about today’s 500 words today, worry about tomorrow’s 500 words tomorrow, and as for yesterday’s 500 words? Forget them, lest ye be sucked down in the quicksand of self-satisfaction or devoured by the litera-demons that hound your every step. Eyes always ahead — but not too far ahead. Sure, there’s a prize out there in the shape of a finished story (well, “finished” is more like it — you still have to edit the thing, after all). But the real prize is another day walking the path, another day weaving stories out of nothingness, the next 500 words that you haven’t written yet.

In this way, a novel gets written. In this way, a story gets told. In this way, another 8 (or nine? or maybe ten? Who even knows, this journey warps spacetime worse than a singularity) months pass. In this way, another cast of characters struts and frets its hour upon the page.

And then, holy carp, one day you’re working away — faithfully, dutifully, painfully hammering out your daily words, when the fog lifts. The trees thin out. The mirage resolves itself.

The loose ends of the story are tying themselves into neat little knots, your word count is knocking on the door of that 85,000 mark, and you realize: it’s almost over.

On the one hand, it’s gratifying as hell — you’ve worked away these months, not knowing what, if anything, it was all going to come to, and now you can look back at the trail you’ve blazed. It was all leading somewhere, after all: to this moment, right here, this patch of virgin earth under your battered boots. The sun seems to shine a little brighter here; the rain passes a little quicker; the breeze is a little sweeter. It’s nearly over. Mission accomplished. C’est finis. (Are those even words? They feel like they might be words.)

But there’s a dissatisfaction, too; equal and opposite to the fullness of accomplishment. The story’s not done yet, not really. You’ve blazed the trail, but you have to go back and mark it out so that your readers can follow you down it. And that’s a lot of work ahead.

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But more so than re-treading this trail you’ve just carved — which will be its own adventure, no doubt — is this: Here you stand, in the midst of the wilderness. The ending point for one journey. And the starting point for the next one.

Make no mistake, finishing a novel is a sweet, sweet feeling. But it’s not a fullness that lets you sit back and unbuckle your belt like you’ve just polished off five pounds of Thanksgiving turkey before you slip into a tryptophan coma. It’s a fullness that scatters like ice from the spoon (I stole that simile from somewhere, but I’ve no idea where), that leaves you hungry again the moment it clears your palate.

There are more trails to blaze, more strange and wonderful characters to meet, more dangers to face, more MacGuffins to MacGuffin.

And though this particular page may be full, you can already hear the next blank page calling.

What else can you do but answer?


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.


Trump’s Election Confirms: God Exists


A theory:

Conventional writing advice states that an author should, generally, step on the throats of his protagonists. Occasionally , you shift your weight and allow the poor bastards to catch a little air, but mostly, you keep them down until they’re almost dead … and then you stomp on them some more.

One could argue, then, that this campaign season has been an extended size 13 to the windpipe. It abated, for the briefest of moments, as the election drew near and it looked like Clinton would win.

And then the boot came down for a crushing blow, and what the hell do we do now?

So: God exists, and he’s an evil fiction writer.

Hopefully he’s set us up for some sort of triumphant third act.

But I kind of doubt it.


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