Tag Archives: writing process

Write Club


I was listening to an interview with Chuck Palahniuk, and it made me realize – I have no idea what kind of writer I am.

I know I’m some sort of writer. Here I am, after all. These words aren’t creating themselves. But I don’t really know how I’m doing it. Or rather, I don’t know if I’m doing it in the best way.

Best, of course, is relative, but it must be said – I’m constantly eaten up with doubt over whether I’m doing it right, where right means in a productive, creative, efficient manner. Whence springs the doubt? Well, to begin, I have no idea how I want to write. My head is full of these conflicting romantic notions about process and product. On the one hand, I revere the idea of going away in a dark corner (literally – one day I’ll photograph my writing corner) to let my fingers tap dance the story to life. On the other, I hold this fondness for the written word – a fondness which has filled up my home and work space with notebooks and pencils of all sorts, and whose marble-statue grip on my soul compels me, always, to wander down the office supply aisle are the Target or the Kroger, “just to see” if they have any neat writerly tools I might need to stock up on.

But, see, then I realize – when’s the last time I really wrote longhand? The answer, it turns out, is about three months ago. (this I know because opposite the page on which I’m now madly scribbling is the last journal entry I wrote, back when I was forcing myself to the habit even when my heart wasn’t in it. It was about Canada, on June 8. So much green.)

So I romanticize writing longhand, but (it’s impossible not to notice) I don’t actually do it. When I’m writing, almost all the time, it’s at the computer, sat behind the keys, a hammering monkey. In the interview, Palahniuk quotes Kerouac or somebody to say, “that’s not writing, that’s typing.” There’s derision there, for sure. A hipsterish scoffing at a process which, at core, is just another way to do it. But Palahniuk prizes the written word in a sort of sacred way, and so, it turns out, do I.

After all, when I embarked on this adventure, I did it, not from behind a computer screen, but from the pages of a notebook basically identical to this one. And when I am struck by my best ideas – my sweet Jesus get that on the page before you forget it and, by its omission, make the universe a sadder place ideas – it’s basically never when I’m sat at the computer, typing. No, those ideas strike like lurking cobras, when I’m just on the precipice overlooking dreamland, when I’m caught at a stoplight, when I’m brushing my teeth, when I’m out for a run, when I’m watching my kids bounce basketballs off each other’s heads.

And what do I do then?

I don’t dash to the computer, wait for it to boot up, open a word processor, open a blank file (or worse, navigate to an existing one). I don’t reach for my phone, swipe to an app, open it, create a note, title it and punch away with my thumbs. No! When the idea strikes, I’m reaching for pencil and paper, because there is nothing simpler, there’s nothing in the way of that.

And yeah. I’ll go hippie-dippie and affirm that there’s still something magical about the scratching of my papermate 0.7 on a sheet of clean, lined paper.

It doesn’t escape my notice that my tone, of late, is full of resolve and enthusiasm: things I want to try, things I want to do, ways I want to be better. Maybe it’s the hint of fall in the air in these recent mornings – it feels like we’re about to shrug off the heavy sweat-cloak of summer. Maybe it’s just the right stimulus striking at the right time, like lightning forking through the primordial ooze and spawning a brand new genesis.

Or maybe it’s just Chuck Palahniuk’s word-seeds falling on fertile soil between my ears.

Whatever it is, I’ll take it. And when it’s time to write in the days and weeks to come, I’ll be considering my notebooks first.

This post is part of stream of consciousness Saturday.

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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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Seams Impossible


It was a fun week off, but tomorrow I’m back to work on that least enjoyable step in the creative process: editing. I’ve edited a novel before, but man … looking at the edits ahead of me is a little bit like staring down the craggy peaks of Everest. This stuff ain’t gonna be easy.

I’ve taken the conventional wisdom for editing perhaps too much to heart, giving myself plenty of time in between drafts. Ideally, they say, you want to come back to your work as a new reader would come to the story, divorced from any cuddly feelings the author might have for this or that character or plot point. In my case, it’s been something like nine months since the ink dried on the first draft of the story I’m about to tackle. And the parallels between a nine-month fermenting process for a story and the time it takes to fully cook a human baby (yeah that looks a little wrong as I sit here and re-read it) are probably too obvious to list.

So: the characters in the story are likely to appear pretty fargoing foreign to me, especially given that I seem to recall introducing some pretty massive shifts in their development about forty percent of the way in. Likewise the plotting, since I’m fairly certain that my past self left a note to my future self to rewrite most of the beginning of the story with a different character as the protagonist. Oh, that Past Me. How easy it must be to come up with these tremendously bold ideas when you don’t have to do any of the legwork. Wouldn’t it be cool if your antagonist were a sentient pile of roaches instead of just a really nasty dude? How about if we set the entire story in an underwater hidden city? Or maybe the story all stays the same, except that now every single character speaks a different language? This guy, I tell ya. Just because he’s pouring the magical unfiltered story-gunk out through his fingers, he thinks he can suggest just any old thing.

Of course, without those crazy ideas — not the dumb ones, mind, because you can’t go diving down every rabbit hole to see what’s at the bottom — the story feels rote, uninspired, like a cardboard sandwich slathered in gluey mayonnaise. Some of the rabbit holes have to be explored, and that’s what the second draft is for: turning down the side streets that you noticed in the first draft but didn’t have the time for. Abandoning the main thread of the story you found yourself telling and hacking into the newly discovered jungle of the story you could tell.

And then, of course, comes the real work: the part where you look around at all the strewn and scattered bits of story, littering the floor like so much discarded fabric at a dressmaker’s, you collect the bits that look the least objectionable, and you start sewing.

So: may my needles stay sharp, may my plot threads not fray, and may my eye for fashion be clear. It’s going to take all that and more to get through this one.

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.


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?


Simmering my Brainmeats in a Fragrant Crockpot of Creative Doubt


My Flash Fiction from last week is enjoying a bit of success over at terribleminds.com.  So good, in fact, that I stand to win a free e-book off the back of it (yay free stuff!).  That thread is here:  Three Sentence Stories.  And it got me to thinking, which is a bad habit I have.  Because I love these little Flash Fiction challenges; I take great pleasure jumping into them with both feet no matter how difficult or ridiculous or outside of my comfort zone they may be.

If you’re going along with this post, you might want to check out my series of stories from last week, because I’m stewing over them right now.  Simmering my brainmeats in a fragrant crockpot of creative doubt.

Writing the last one — I should say the last set, since I expanded on the topic and wrote way more than I perhaps should have — was instructive, because the development of the stories was so strange to me.  With only three sentences to tell a story, I agonized for the weekend over what story I could tell, what characters I could bring to bear, what possible development and twists I could effect within such a short period.  My first story was good but fell into my typical vein of the dark and somewhat horrific account of a more or less mild-mannered somebody taking part in senseless violence.  It’s a little bit of a motif with me, I’m afraid, and I’m just not sure how effective it really is.  It wasn’t bad, but the moment I wrote it, I realized just how much of a step into an old shoe it was, which is why I decided to write another one.

So I rebooted, kept my central idea and parameters, and brought in new characters, new conflicts.  New perspective, new story, new twist.  And v2 was better, I think, though it still fell in the same dark, depraved vein of the first.  But twisting the idea in my brain felt refreshing, so I tried again.  If the first story was a cruise down a familiar highway, the second was a short detour on a quaint exit ramp for a franchise burger.  A bit different but nothing incredible.

So for the third go-round, I decided to take a hard left into the ditch.  Rather than characters, I characterized inanimate objects (more or less), let them talk and explore human emotions and ideas, and … end up at the same dark murderous place.  Hmm.  The new take on characters was like a fantastic little food truck discovered set up around the corner from my office.  Totally new and exciting food in a familiar and comforting setting.  I knew I was getting warmer.

On the fourth go-round, I struck gold.  I re-imagined the central idea once again, personified an inanimate object and used my scenario to describe a situation that happens every day.  Not an earth-shattering revelation about everyday, just a little thought experiment on what might be happening when the vending machine at the end of the hall rejects your dollar.  Somehow, it felt like gold.  An ostensibly ridiculous premise with an endearing (at least, I think so!) character whom you don’t expect, giving an unexpected perspective and staying light and upbeat.  So it was a bit out of my comfort zone, a bit funny, a bit ridiculous, and very much me.  As I was writing it, before it was finished (yeah, that quickly, even before I could finish three sentences), I could tell it was the best one.  That “magic” was happening, that crazy feeling where you feel like you’ve tapped into the magical mind-juice of the universe and your pen (okay, your keyboard) is acting as a conduit for the timeless universal stories that speak to everybody.  You know, a good writing session.

The fifth attempt felt a little forced, so I pulled the plug after that one.

So, to reflect, I wrote one story in my usual vein, a second with one foot out of the vein, a third with an eye on a different horizon, and a fourth that struck out toward that horizon and — by all accounts — seems to be resonating with folks who read it.  So now, I’ve got another prompt in front of me for the weekend, and I’m all in my own head, wondering if I need to write three junk stories before I get at the “real” one.  For that matter, I’m working on an extended short story and boy oh boy, does it feel awkward and forced.  Like I’m in touch with the central idea, and I’m enjoying the premise, but I can tell as I’m writing it that I’m not telling the story the right way.

Do I need a few crap attempts at the topic to “clear the pipes” so that I can get down to writing the story that I want to write?  If so, how far do I have to carry those stories out?  When I wrote Rejected v1, it felt like a pretty good story to me, but in retrospect I can see that it’s awfully derivative.  The current version of Powdered Chaos, at about 30% completion, already feels crap.  Do I need to carry it to is conclusion before I take another stab at it?  Or, having written about 4000 words on it already, can I legitimately realize it’s crap and start over without crashing my creative process?

In short, just what the hell is my creative process anyway?  This is seriously bugging me, and it’s bogging down my writing hard while I’m trying to carry my momentum through this lull before I jump into editing Accidentally Inspired.

Need to figure this out.  Anybody else have anxiety like this about your drafts?  How do you attack it?  Do I just write the crap to clear the pipes or do I resist the urge to waste time on the crap and hold out for the good ideas to strike?


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