Tag Archives: writing is awful

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.

Fly Away

I’ve had to kill more than a few flies over the past few days.

Part of it, I think, is that the little buggers feel the end of summer coming on, and they’re trying to get indoors before the cooler weather comes. And part of it, of course, owes to the fact that the building I now work in was built in the 70s and shows every sign of it, down to the poor ventilation and the likely hundreds of nests and colonies in the walls. My room is always host to some six-legged creature or other, and this week, it’s been flies.

Which are the hardest things to deal with, it turns out. Mosquitoes you can catch in a closed fist. Bees drone along and then hover in space. But not flies. Flies catapult themselves through the air like UFOs powered by technology that shatters physics.

I remember reading once upon a time that flies have all kinds of extra sensory organs — from their tiny little antennae to the hair-like structures on their legs and body to their 800-faceted eyes — which make them one of nature’s most talented getaway artists. They end up with the reflexes of a cat that can see into the future, so that you’re always just a snap too slow, you always seem to strike the air just behind them. It’s almost as if they can sense that you’re about to swat them, and they leap out of the way.

Turns out, the actual air pressure created by your rapidly descending hands is sufficient to push the little critters out of the way; in other words, the act itself of swatting at the fly increases the fly’s odds of escape. The only way to counteract this is to anticipate where the fly is going to jump to and try clapping your hands at that spot, rather than aiming at the fly itself.

Which is a mug’s game, right? You can’t predict which way a fly is going to jump, any more than you can predict which way a flipped coin will land or which face a tossed die will fall on.

Still, guessing — even guessing wrong — gives you better odds than striking straight at the thing itself.

And there’s metaphors here, aren’t there? Life is a moving target, and all that. And by the time you think you’ve drawn a good bead on something, it’s moved along and you’re swiping at the empty air.

Sure feels like that lately, anyway. Working on this new story, it feels like the real thing — the good stuff, the soft, nougaty center of this idea — is buzzing around my head, lighting here on a bookcase, there on a lamp, occasionally on the skin of my scalp. But every time I try to nail the thing down, it flits away effortlessly, and I can almost hear its tiny, incessant insectoid laughter. And I bang my head away against some weak facsimile of the story I want to write and curse the muse for not dropping any of her glittery inspiration turdlets in my direction.

But then I strike off in a totally new direction; rather than trying to write the story I thought I was writing, I make a hard left and take the story in a new direction, and for a few blessed days at least, I get to bottle the lightning. I trap the fly between my hands and work gleefully while it bangs itself silly trying to escape.

And of course, it does. It escapes again. You can’t hold onto these things any more than you can hold on to a fistful of the ocean.

But you keep grabbing onto it all the same, as long as the story cries out to be told.

So if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be flailing around like an insane person trying to swat this storyfly.

Zeno’s Literary Paradox

(Allow me to disclaim that I’m not particularly educated or bothered with the differences between turtles, tortoises, terrapins, and the like. I am sure they are all different and not interchangeable. I will nonetheless be interchanging them today. I have at least one friend who will be very upset by this.)

What is it with me and thought experiments? Last week, the Prisoner’s Dilemma. This week, Zeno’s Paradox. Maybe it’ll be my next “regular feature” that burns out after a month or so.

Zeno’s Paradox is one of my favorites, in that it seems to defy all common sense, yet when you look at the premises of the argument, it is inescapably logical.

We imagine a footrace between Achilles and a tortoise.

Since Achilles is a sporting chap, and clearly runs faster than the tortoise, he spots the tortoise a significant head start. This is only fair.

So, after Achilles runs for an indeterminate amount of time, he will have reached the point that the tortoise started from. However, in the same amount of time, the tortoise will have moved forward some smaller amount, so Achilles still has ground to make up. Again he moves forward, arriving rather quickly at the point the tortoise previously occupied, and again he finds that the turtle has crept a bit further ahead.

This process repeats for as long as you care to repeat it. Due to the fact that measurements are a human construct and therefore infinite, we will never reach a point whereat Achilles overcomes the tortoise.

It follows, then, that logically, Achilles can never overtake the tortoise.

In practice, of course, Achilles sprints right past the hapless terrapin.


I absolutely love this. It is simultaneously as self-evident as a stone and as incomprehensible as consciousness itself. Achilles, in the mind, seems paradoxically never to gain ground; in fact, the closer he comes to his goal, the farther he has to go.

I’ve noted previously around here (though I can’t be arsed to track down where at the moment) that Andre Agassi, one of my more favorite athletes (we bald guys have to stick together), has expressed a similar psychological phenomenon. He describes the end of a tennis match as a magnetic force: one that, the closer you get to it, catches you in its field and pulls you in. But like a reversed magnet, the closer you get, the harder it becomes to actually make contact.

You can get closer and closer, but you can never quite catch it.

And that’s kind of like writing, innit?

You begin with this vast tract of land in front of you: the blank page and the faraway goal of a completed story, be it 3000 words or 93000. You start to work. The finish line is way up there, but who cares? You’re making progress day by day, easily measurable progress, and you have the word counts to prove it. And you close and you close and you close and the turtle gets bigger and bigger in your vision, and one day: you finish! The story is written, the narrative arc resolved.

But the turtle has moved. You still have more work to do, in the form of re-reading, re-outlining, editing, proofreading. You’re closer than you were to start the exercise, but it took you a long time to cover all that distance, and the turtle isn’t holding still, either (and why would it, with an ink-stained, caffeine-addled word-herder on its tail?).

So you lower your head and off you go again. This time it’s not such a long road to catch the turtle — you’ve already written 90,000 words after all, what’s the big deal revising or re-ordering 30,000 of them — and before long, you’re there. A story edited, improved, fixed!


LOL I’m still ahead.

But where’s the turtle? Sonofabitch, it’s another thirty turtle-miles up the road. (Which is, I dunno, five hundred feet? What’s the ground speed of a turtle anyway?) You’ve got some beta-reads to do, now, and the receiving of notes, and probably another read of the work yourself, and then a subsequent edit…

And just like Achilles, you keep chasing the turtle, and just like the turtle, your project creeps inexorably forward, staying ahead of you by distances which are too small to be properly measured, let alone explained to anybody who isn’t a writer.

“You’ve been working on it for how long?” your friends ask, with confusion and maybe a bit of pity in their voices. “I thought you finished the draft months ago.”

“Yes,” you explain, straining to keep the desperation from bleeding in, “but then I found a major problem with the protagonist’s backstory on page thirty, so I had to go back and fix it, and when I fixed that, I realized I had taken away the whole motivation for the antagonist to –”

And by this point, your friends are simply nodding and smiling and backing away, the way they might with a foamy-mouthed dog. (Little do they know you’ve been subsisting on nothing but Cool Whip for the past two days because you’re eyeballs-deep in edits and can’t bring yourself to leave the house.)

And despite all the progress you’ve made, that farkarkte turtle (and yeah, I had to look up how to spell “farkarkte,” and I don’t care what you think — it’s in my personal lexicon for some reason and it bubbled to the surface like a dead fish and I love it) is still bobbing along the road ahead of you, evading reach even though it looks like it’s right there.

The fact is, if you think of a novel as the sum of its requisite parts — the draft, the editing, the revising, the crying, the drinking, the smashing of computers with hammers, the dark nights of doubt, the … well, you get the idea — then the whole equation begins to look very much like the mathematical side of Zeno’s Paradox. No matter how close you might ultimately get, you will never actually get there.

Which is why it’s a good thing we writers don’t live in a mathematical world. (Most of us, anyway. Actually, who am I kidding, MATH IS EVERYWHERE.)

We live in the delightfully creative, whimsical world where expectations exist only to be reversed, where up can be down if we bloody well feel like it. We live in the world where, paradox or not, Achilles keeps on pounding away and leaves the tortoise in the dust.

We keep on writing and we (eventually, one day, maybe, please?) cross the finish line.


End in Sight

I have noted to my two primary reviewers that, in the recent weeks of my latest (and, for the time being, last) revision of AI, I’ve felt less and less compelled to make any changes the closer I get to the end of the book.

I wasn’t sure if that was due to my fatigue with the project or whether the book actually got better toward the end.

Well, today, I answered that question, because today I feel compelled to make some massive changes to the ending. Well, not massive changes in and of themselves; the characters will do the same things, the conflicts will resolve in the same ways. But there are some serious plot holes toward the end of the book which are too big not to address, and that’s going to require some creative narrative surgery to fix. It’s kinda like I was so excited to put the finishing touches on the thing that I didn’t realize I had attached the feet above the knees. Then the thing tried to walk and it collapsed like a wire skeleton. Or maybe the book is like a gymnast that spends 180 pages running and twisting and building up momentum and then breaks its ankle on the landing from a back handspring.

So even though it’s a little discouraging to run into such a hurdle within sight of the end of the process, I’m at least heartened to see that my editorial lenses aren’t simply fogged with exhaustion.

Now I’m off to think about how to straighten out this gimpy narrative leg…

The Shape of a Story

There’s a shape to writing, and that shape is a pear.

No, I’m kidding.  To be fair, writing does go pear-shaped, almost every day if I’m honest, but rare are the days when it doesn’t turn around and end up feeling productive or enlightening or, at the very least, right to have written, even on the days when the writing is total bollocks.  But to say that writing is pear-shaped is to oversimplify in the worst way.  It’s calling a baby a factory for poop and tears and snot.  It’s calling a puppy a factory for poop and vomit and midnight barking.  It’s calling my car a lumbering bucket of soon-to-be-rusted-and-worthless bolts.

Also, to call writing pear-shaped is to essentially say writing is fruity, and it’s certainly not that.  Fruit can’t shave away at your soul like writing does.  Fruit can’t make you feel impossibly brilliant and numbingly stupid in an instant.  At its best, fruit is delicious but transient.  It doesn’t stay with you.

No, I think writing is not so much a shape as a line.  Specifically, it’s a line describing a downward arc through the depths of the soul and the psyche.  You start high, full of motivation and ambition and giddy thoughts that you’re writing the best thing ever, that the story will be momentous and the characters transcendent and the themes and the symbolism and the echoes of the real world will reverberate through the annals of literature, or, at the very least, score you an interview segment on Conan.  You start at the top.

Then the work begins and you lose steam.  You start to struggle.  You realize that writing is hard.  That it’s incredibly difficult to write believable characters, that making multiple plotlines weave together is as easy as playing Chinese Checkers blindfolded, that the nuts and bolts of your narrative make as much sense as a box of chocolates without the label card.  You bite into this thing and you don’t know if you’re getting coconut or caramel or a goldfingered disgusting cherry.  Then you get halfway through your draft and it gets really hard.  The characters are stupid.  Your idea is stupid.  Your narrative might as well be a bile-soaked hairball for all that you want to try and straighten it out, and the end you imagined makes about as much sense as the Duck-Billed Platypus.  And down, down, down you slide.

But you FINISH.  And you float there for a moment, translucent and gleeful, basking in the fact that you finished this monolith task.  Slew the mammoth.  Ate the five-pound steak.  And then you re-read the thing and you realize it’s even worse than you feared, and DOWN, DOWN, DOWN you slide, all the way to the bottom, where maybe one day you finish the thing, and it’s terrible and crippled and ugly and squealing and you feel like you really should put it out of its misery but you spent so much time on it that maybe you ought to just send it out, and then the bottom really, finally, truly, for realsies, drops the fargo out and you plummet into the all-consuming black hole at the bottom of your self-doubting soul.

No, that’s not right.

Writing is a line, but it doesn’t arc downward.  It curls up, like the pointy ends of Snidely Whiplash’s majestic mustache.  You start at the bottom.  Your idea, ill-formed.  Your characters, half-baked.  Your voice uncertain.  But you pick the ball up and begin to write.  For days, you struggle.  You fight the momentum of non-productiveness and you urge the story forward, bit by agonizing bit.  And then a little miracle happens.  The lights start to come on.  The engine turns on, splutters, then catches.  The story starts to move under its own power, just a little bit.  And this gives you hope.  And you keep writing and the story develops its own momentum and one day you’re writing but it doesn’t feel like you’re writing anymore, you’re just seeing the story unfold and transcribing as it does, like some lunatic translator scribing a lost manuscript into English for the first time.  The dragons you’ve yet to slay don’t seem so large, the sharks don’t seem to have quite so many teeth, and you feel you may actually finish this thing, and that momentum lights in your fledgling little wings and spirits you off the ground.  And you finish the thing, in a heady swirl of accomplishment and drunken confidence and sheer self-amazement that from nothingness you have created SOMEthing, in an act that flies in the face of everything you thought you knew before.

You still have doubts, but you know you’ve accomplished a capital “T” Thing, and then you go back and read it and you realize that for all its problems it’s not that bad.  And that realization buoys you even further up, into the rarefied air that only the astronauts and the gods get to breathe (okay, astronauts don’t breathe the outside air, I get that, I’m on a roll here).  And you begin to refine your creation, to shape and polish and sharpen it into the thing you never knew it could be, and then, finally, giddy with achievement and drunk with confidence, you send it out, and Icarus himself could not fly closer to the sun.

Maybe Icarus is the wrong comparison, or maybe he’s the perfect one.  Both of those lines are true, and both are false.  Writing lifts you up on the crests of the highs and casts you down into the snakepits of the lows, in a wickedly exhausting roller-coaster ride that somehow lasts for months on end.  The point is, it’s a hell of a ride, and you might barf at the end.

This post is part of SoCS.  Somehow I wrote all this without an edit.

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