Tag Archives: Writing

Thunderstruck


When you hear something that matters, you know it. It’s a shock to the system, 1.21 gigawatts right down the ol’ fluxcapacitor. You feel supercharged, empowered, motivated.

I’m working my way through Save the Cat!, (something in me rebels against punctuating a comma right after an exclamation, but Save the Cat! is the title, so there you are), a tiny tome — giddy guidebook, prognosticating pamphlet — on screenplay writing.

Which is to say, on story writing. Snyder focuses on film, but film is just one storytelling medium among multitudes, and I’ve yet to see anything in the book that wouldn’t fly for novels, plays, games, perhaps roleplay with that special someone. It’s all gold, and I’m only 40 pages in.

The book is less bespectacled-professor-reading-from-a-musty-tome and more Morpheus-pulling-back-the-veil-of-reality. “Here’s a story,” the book says. “Look at it, see it, yes, it’s about these things, sure. But look closer. Strip away the trappings and look at what it is behind the mask.” Rather in the vein of Campbell’s monomyth, or Booker’s Seven Basic Plots, Save the Cat! is about archetyping, codifying, categorizing. Once you know the categories and the tropes that your story plays to, you can then maneuver more expertly within them; becoming the Han Solo to your own personal Kessel run.

Anyway. I’m finding it useful to take it just a few pages per day, so that I can marinate on the chapter I’ve just read without getting inundated trying to process too much at once (which is my fancy way of saying it’s my toilet reader of the moment). And today’s pages were all about making sure that your protagonist is the right kind of protagonist for your story.

Ka-BLAM. Thunderbolts and lightning (very very frightening [and yeah, that lyric has always bothered me, THUNDER DOESN’T COME IN BOLTS]). Just like that, I see why my trunked novel failed — my protagonist was all wrong. Or rather, all wrong for that story. The realization was like opening up a corpse for the autopsy and finding the spleen where the heart should be, the lungs crammed in behind the bladder, the leg-bone connected to the neck-bone.

Right pieces, wrong arrangement.

And while the current project isn’t exactly a stunning specimen of anatomical narrative perfection, it seems like most of the current appendages are at least in reasonable places for the phylum. Whether that’s by accident or because I grew a little between novel #2 and #3 is for fate to decide, but needless to say, this story doesn’t feel broken the way the last one did.

All of which is to say that I heartily endorse this book, as I’ve mentioned at least once before.

Save the Cat, read this book.

This post is part of Stream-of-Consciousness Saturday. I misread the prompt, but by the time I went back, I didn’t feel like starting over, so rather than getting a word that starts with “oc”, you get a word that contains “oc”. Deal with it!

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Accidentally Inspired Year in Review


When Orpheus went to retrieve his beloved Eurydice from the depths of Hades, the resident god allowed it with one caveat: he could lead her back to the world above, but he couldn’t look back, or she would be lost forever.

Which is a little bit the way I feel here on the last day of 2017. Like things are just on the brink of being okay again, but — when I inevitably turn to look back — it’s all gonna turn to sharknado.

I know I’m not alone in this. 2017 has been a bumpy ride for us creative types: it’s hard to focus on the art when you fear for the world as you know it. Production is down, frustration is up. If I had to put an estimate on it, I’d say the average word has gotten 77% harder to write this year, and good sentences are 183% harder to come by. The brain just isn’t connecting right — there’s too much fog, too much distraction.

Add to the strife and struggle that most artists were feeling in general this year the added stress of our summer-long move (seriously, we started the process in March and didn’t finish until July — just in time to go back to work), and the end result has been a donkey kick to the balls of my creativity. Progress on the edits of my novels stagnated, to the point that one of them stalled out completely and I’ve had to abandon it like an iceberg-struck cruise ship. My daily word counts have bottomed out like a Formula One racer pulling into a Wendy’s. Even my posts around here have tapered off like the back end of a dolphin. And if you notice that there’s little rhyme or reason to those similes, well, see the previous paragraph.

And like the finely-tuned but ramshackle Rube Goldberg machine that, when one element misfires the entire contraption goes sailing off the rails, as goes the writing, so goes the rest of the ship. My exercise routine and the motivation to keep it up has cratered. Work — my actual money-making job — has felt harder despite, by outward appearances, becoming easier. Feels like my parenting skills are in the ditch because they kids are always fighting and screaming and stretching us to the limit. Needless to say, I’ve packed on a few pounds, so add that into the equation for some good, old-fashioned self-loathing.

I am more than ready, in other words, to see the back end of 2017. But doing that properly entails taking a look backwards, like Orpheus, so that I can fully appreciate the sharknadostorm.

So.

Current novel project status:

  1. Accidentally Inspired: still querying. I’m behind on sending out letters (go figure), but I’m still happy with the book.
  2. Untitled time-travel project: trunked. I spent many months making not a lot of progress in the edits and it just wasn’t working. Maybe I’ll come back to it one day, but there’s only so much good time I’m willing to throw down a hole.
  3. Untitled superhero project: rebuilding. I’m in the midst of rewriting a chunk of the middle of the book, after which I’ll move into proper edits. Many good feelings here, even if the progress has been slower than I’d like.

If I had to put a total word count on what I’ve written novel-wise this year, I’d put that number around 40,000. Not great by any stretch. But I’ll temper that by noting that I wasn’t drafting much if at all this year; all my work has been in edits. Which is a bummer, because there’s nothing like the thrill of raw creation that comes with drafting, but there it is.

State of the blarg:

having fun GIF

Posts are down, which means readership is down. Interestingly, I have more unique visitors than in years past, but less views per visitor, which is both good and bad. Good: more people seeing my stuff. Bad: not as many clickarounds to read what else is on offer. I could make some excuses for this, but I think it comes down to tone. I’ve done a lot of grousing about how hard things have been this year, and people can only take so much of that. Hell, I can only take so much of that. I also suspect that the more time I spend splashing around in my mudhole of despair, the more despair I get on me, which demotivates my writing, and *begin 2017 death-spiral all over again*.

I look into my stats and I see that some of my most popular posts were my Terrible Reviews, which is a category I’ve neglected this year, and also a thing I quite enjoy writing, so getting back to more of those wouldn’t go amiss.

I also think, in a psychological mind-gaming myself into less effery kind of way, that my standards are hurting me. For a while, I prided myself on getting my average post length up over 1000 words. Which is great when it happens, but also — who has the patience to sit there and read 1000 words of drivel on a blog? I’m guessing not a ton of people, to say nothing of the time it takes to churn out 1000 words — especially when I could better use those words on my novels. The blarg still serves, I think, as a release valve for creative energy and is a solid way to Just Keep Writing, but it’s felt like a job somewhat. That doesn’t strike me as a formula for fun.

And this sharknado is supposed to be fun, for fargo’s sake.

John Goodman’s exterminator in the aptly-named Arachnophobia was a teetotaling sort. He brought a flamethrower to deal with a subterranean basement infestation, which, y’know, plus ten for total domination, but minus a thousand for good thinking. Still, when asked what to do about the problem of wood rot in a basement early in the film, he offered this gem: “Cut out bad wood. Put in good wood.”

Animated GIF

Easier said than done, probably. And the spiders totally got him in the end. But marvelous in its simplicity, and some advice I’m gonna try to live by.

In fact, I’m gonna take that quote, change one letter (okay, FINE, one letter TWICE) and make that my mantra for 2018. (Not a resolution, because resolutions are bullsharknado, but a mantra.)

“Cut out bad word. Put in good word.”

Maybe not poetic, but a good thing to aim for.

face off GIF

See you in 2018.


Metaphor Monday: Breath of the Fall


Looks like Metaphor Mondays just come on Tuesday now. I guess that’s just the way it’s gonna be.

Fall feels like it’s arriving late this year. Seems like the summer, like a bad movie, has gone on and on and on — hot, sticky days without end. Days without a breeze. Weeks without rain. Doldrums. Ennui. The itch slowly settling in.

And then, one night, like magic, it changes. The damp, drab air gets swept unceremoniously out the door and in rushes that cool, chilly sting. You leave the windows open at night and wake up shivering. You leave for work in the morning bundled up in a sweatshirt you’re going to leave at work because it’ll still be eighty degrees when you get out. The summer’s not gone yet, but it’s on its way out, and the morning tingles with possibility.

Even the night skies get clearer as the haze dissipates. Stars hidden from view for months pop back into being: diamonds on a velvet backdrop. The air is cleaner, lighter, sweeter.

You step outside in the morning and you feel alive. You breathe it in and it lifts you up. You shiver, whether with cold or anticipation, and it really doesn’t matter, does it?

I like fall.

But there’s no telling when that first breath of the fall is going to come, is there?

I mean, sure, the seasons come more or less on schedule every year (but if you don’t like the weather around here, just wait five minutes, AMIRITE?). But you don’t get notice; you can’t mark it on your calendar: actual fall weather starts here. Circled in the ombre of falling leaves and scented with pumpkin spice deodorant. It doesn’t work like that; it’s rather more like the crappy toy on the back of the cereal box that you saved up for as a kid. You dutifully tore off all those UPCs, stuffed them in an envelope with your greedy, gooey kid fingers (seriously why are kids’ fingers always so gooey, brb buying stock in Purell). And you waited. You knew that, some day in the future, your prize would arrive, but there was no telling when — one day, when you’d almost forgotten about it, your dad would walk in with a weird little brown package, toss it on the table, and say “who the hell is sending YOU mail?”

Magic.

Which is basically how inspiration works.

Inspiration, I find, is largely a load of horse puckey in the commonly understood sense. Writers (and artists of all ilks) don’t wander around in fields holding radio aerials hoping their new ideas will strike from the heavens. The ones really getting inspired are the ones slavishly returning to the page day after day whether they feel inspired or not. You have to work for it. You have to sweat it out. Languish in the doldrums. Ripen and rot under the unforgiving summer sun…. and after a long enough sojourn into the word mines (as CW would put it), the lightning strikes.

And when it does: well. It’s like the first frosty breath of fall on a mid-October morning under a sky full of sapphires.

Chilly out there this morning.

Makes me hungry for the blank page.


Metaphor Monday (Kind of): Your Eyes Are Idiots


Take a look at this:

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Okay, so you’ve probably seen that before, but pretend that you haven’t. Or step into your time machine and visit the thoughts and feelings and emotional earthquakes that your younger self experienced upon seeing it for the first time.

Are you there? Good.

You glance at that picture, and immediately you see something.

(Physiologically, your brain is doing just another of the million miracles it will do in any given day, but this is one you can be a little more conscious of. It interprets the lines. The brightnesses. The shadows. It forms these things into shapes and patterns. Then it goes and categorizes those shapes and patterns and tells you you are seeing –)

Bam. A young lady, in a mink coat and choker, her face turned demurely away from you.

Or —

Bam. An old, homely woman, with craggy nose and chin, swaddled in furs, looking forlornly down and to the front.

Either way, the moment you looked at it, you saw either the one image or the other. The A, or the B. And your brain can’t process them both at the same time. So when you see the young lady in (A), you’re locked in to that, and when you see the old crone in (B), you’re locked in to that. And, probably, upon first viewing this illusion (or, as Neil de Grasse Tyson calls it, a “brain failure”), you couldn’t even conceive of the other possibility. “You don’t see the old woman?” “No, are you kidding?”

But then, if you look at it long enough — oh, the choker is a mouth, now, and the little dot of the young lady’s ear is the old woman’s eye — then all of a sudden, the picture snaps from one reality to the other and the crone is all you see.

You can go back and forth on whether the girl in the picture is young or old, but you can’t see them both at the same time. It’s one or the other. X perspective gives Y result. Schroedinger’s cat could be dead or alive before you open the box, but once you open it, the cat is either very much alive or very much not.

That’s the funny thing about our brains, though; the image is neither that of a young lady or an old crone. The image is just a collection of lines and different areas of black and white. It’s merely the suggestion of one form or another (or perhaps, of many forms), and it is only in the eye of the viewer that the image takes on any meaning at all.

Which brings me to this week’s metaphor. (Which, if current trends continue, should just become “the weekly metaphor” and not the “Monday metaphor”, but that’s a digression for another non-Monday.)

For the past year and a half or so (actually, I should probably go back and look to make sure, but going back and looking to clarify is a thing that, today, right now, I will decidedly not be doing, because the answer would almost certainly destroy me emotionally), I’ve been working on this story.

It’s a good story. Or at least, it felt at its inception and on a conceptual level like a good story. But in the editing process — which is dragging now into the 6 month period, and given my progress (or lack thereof), is likely to go on for quite a good while longer — the story is failing. Or flailing. Probably a little of both. I feel like I have all the right pieces, arranged in the right way, working toward the right goal — but the outcome is not what I wanted. Worse than not what I wanted, it’s not even functioning the way I intended. I asked for a picture of an aristocratic lady, and I got a hag instead.

To clarify this a little, I set out to write a “Voyage and Return” variant of the seven core stories. Add in a little “Overcoming the Monster” and it’s on its way. But the more I edit, the more I chip away at this block of wood in front of me, the more it seems like the “Voyage and Return” story is the part that’s falling flat. The much more powerful (and more interesting — at least to me) story is the secondary one, the Monster.

Problem is, since I thought I was writing a V&R, I bent most of my energies and spent most of my words on that channel. On that perspective. On the cat being alive when we open the box.

But I think the cat is dead. I think it is very, very dead.

(Have I mixed my metaphors enough for a Monday? {Sorry, a Tuesday.})

All of a sudden, though, I realized that the picture I’m looking at doesn’t have to be the picture I thought I was drawing. I thought I was drawing the young lady, but it turns out I was drawing the hag all along — and as it turns out, I think I like the hag better.

In short, I think the story is much more about the Monster than it is about the Voyage, possibly so much so that the Voyage (and the 40% of the novel that’s directly concerned with it, to say nothing of the 70% that is at least tangentially concerned with it) is superfluous. Which is troubling. And I’m sitting here pondering all the words I’ve written, and all the fargoes I’ve sunk into the story, and I’m asking myself:

Do I scrap 50% of the novel and start over?

Do I trunk the entire project and move on to something that won’t vex me so much? (Although that’s its own Schroedinger’s Cat, innit?)

Do I wait a few days for the feeling, like an unexpected kidney stone, to pass?

One way or another, this crappy rabbit sure isn’t helping anything.

DuckRabbit

 


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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