Tag Archives: Writing

Caveat Pre-Emptor (Or, Why It’s Okay to Brag a Little)


So, like, I’m a writer, right? Or at least, I’m trying to be. I aspire. Along with the legions of others.

And once in a while, and I do mean a good while, somebody will ask me “how’s it going?” Or, even more rarely, the subject will come up for the first time and they’ll ask “what are you writing?”

And before I can even properly formulate my response, the caveats start flooding out of me like the air from a punctured tire. “Well, I haven’t been making the kind of progress I’d like, but —”, or “you know, I really haven’t been working on it for very long, so —”, or “I don’t have the time to really focus on it, and —”, or, you know, fill in the blank with whatever disclaimer is handy. I’m basically telling the person that whatever it is isn’t really up to standards (mine or theirs or some imaginary person’s? WHO KNOWS, I DON’T), and it’s basically just me noodling around on the page like that lame guy who knows three chords but pulls his guitar out at the party anyway.

All of which, I should point out, is true. I mean, I’d like to be making more progress, but THIS STUFF IS HARD. I really haven’t been working on it very long — writing in general for maybe three years, this project in particular about a year, all told — but that’s because THIS STUFF IS HARD and I only recently decided to take it on. And I don’t have the time to really focus on it, because THIS STUFF IS HARD and it takes a ton of freaking time and I have, you know, a job, bills, a family, etc, etc.

Damn, I even caught myself doing it when I was doing a little journaling the other morning. In a bit of personal writing, from MYSELF to MYSELF, meant for absolutely nobody else’s eyes ever, I put an asterisk on a statement of accomplishment. (I’d been for a run in the morning, and thanks to a nagging injury, my pace wasn’t exactly what I’d prefer, so I hemmed and hawed — again, AT MYSELF — about the fact that I got out there and ran my morning miles.)

Something — something deeply rooted and insidious like the fungus at the heart of an ancient elm — makes me shy away from “bragging”. Somehow, to talk about a thing I’ve done seems too much like grandstanding, like a ploy for accolades, like fishing for compliments. No, it’s even worse than that — I have this thing where I can’t stop thinking and analyzing. And because I’m always analyzing (especially when it comes to my own efforts and the stuff I create), I know, deep down in my bones, that what I’m doing is a far cry short of the best stuff out there, that it probably won’t appeal to the average person, and that therefore any horn-tooting about it would be very much amiss. Something about pride and falls and all that.

But you know what? It’s exactly because THIS STUFF IS HARD that it’s worth bragging about. Getting it done, regardless of the quality of it, is worth tooting my own horn, I think. I mean, just to put it in perspective: how many people out there didn’t run a 5k with their dog (in the rain!) before the sun even cracked an eye to reach for the snooze alarm? Almost all of them. How many people didn’t pen the last words of a draft and start the long, thankless process of editing their novel? Almost all of them. How many people didn’t carve time out of their lunch hour to itemize the entire plot of their story on notecards strictly for the purpose of mapping it out and seeing it better on the re-write? Pretty much all of them.

Almost all of them might sound like an exaggeration, but it’s really not. I’m reminded of a passage from Douglas Adams explaining that the population of the universe is essentially zero. How does that work, you ask? Owing to the staggering amount of empty space, the amount of space that has people in it compared as a ratio to the amount of space that doesn’t gives a value so infinitesimal that for all practical purposes, it might as well be zero. By that rationale, sure, there are tons of writers and runners in the world, but they are outnumbered on a planetary scale by people who aren’t writers or runners — so, basically, virtually nobody writes or runs. (This is a fun way to claim significance for just about anything.)

And why didn’t almost every person out there do any of these things? BECAUSE THIS STUFF IS HARD. But I did it anyway. Regardless of the time it took to finish, or the quality of the product as I look back on it, or how I felt or didn’t feel as I was doing it, I did these things.

To hell with layering it, like a damned wedding cake, with asterisks. To hell with putting disclaimers on it. That’s a hot pile of horse puckey. I did these things, and they were worth doing. Doesn’t matter if it could’ve been better; doing it was better than not doing it. Doesn’t matter if it took a long time; it’s done now. And if I don’t show some pride in the things I’m doing, who the hell else is gonna do it for me?

To hear me tell it, basically everything I’ve done is only a half-measure. Sure, I wrote a few plays after college, but they were just those lame murder-mysteries you can see anywhere. And yeah, I wrote a full-length play that was a smash hit at my old high school, but it’s really too long and there’s all kinds of things wrong with it. Yup, I’ve finished a novel, but I’m not published yet. Or yeah, I run, but only about fifteen miles a week these days. Sure, I’ve run long-distance races — but only a half-marathon. (By the way, somebody seriously needs to get on re-branding the half-marathon — the title itself is a caveat. And get out of here with that Pikermi crap, you can’t be serious in a run if people think a digitized cartoon rat goes dancing across the finish line.)

See how lousy that sounds? But strip the caveats out, and that turns into:

I run four days a week. And I’ve run over 13 miles at a stretch before.

I’ve written plays. (Plural.) Which were performed for audiences which paid money to watch them.

I’ve written a novel. (And am working on more.)

See how much better that sounds? That sounds like a guy who’s got his life together. That sounds like a guy you’d buy a cup of coffee for, if you could, and maybe hear a little bit of what he has to say.

So here’s a challenge for me and for you: cut out the caveats and the disclaimers. Stop knocking yourself down before you’ve even properly stood up. Accomplish whatever it is you’re trying to accomplish and be proud of the accomplishment.

Stuff your caveats in a sack. Then set the sack on fire and shoot it out of a cannon.

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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!


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:

2012693_f520

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

 


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