Tag Archives: Writing

Lots of Time, Not Enough Time


Summer is weird for my writing process.

I do my project writing at work — arriving early and carving time out of my lunch break to get my daily word count in. Which is great. It’s regular, it’s very rarely disrupted, and it’s (for the most part) uninterrupted. The big problem with it is: I’m a teacher. Which means that, for two months out of every year, and on the odd week here and there, my writing routine hits a speed bump. Except it’s less speed bump and more an entire clutch of trees fallen across the road.

trees see GIF

Because when we’re on vacation — and man, I’m not complaining about vacation! — so many of the elements I like to have in place are out of place. I don’t have my usual space. I don’t have the relative quiet. I definitely don’t have the lack of interruption.

Instead, I’m trying to work on the sofa in the living room, or the desk downstairs, with the kids running laps through the house and asking me endless questions. There’s no such thing as quiet. There’s no such a thing as even an interrupted five minutes.

I have all the time I could want, but I can’t buy the moments.

Like having reservations to a fancy restaurant on the night of my kid’s graduation.

Or having a membership to a swanky gym on the opposite side of town.

The thing is there, but it might as well be behind bulletproof plexiglass. I just can’t get to it. It’s frustrating as hell. I have so much time in the day, but I can’t — or at least, haven’t figured out how to — use that time.

Which means that, yet again, the project is stalled, until I can find a more reliable way to work on it. Which may well be going back to school in the fall.

Ugh.

This post is part of Stream-of-Consciousness Saturday.

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Terrible Reviews: The Avengers, Infinity War (On Protagonism)


There’s a lot to be said about Infinity War that can’t be said without spoiling some of it. Based on the state of my local movie theater on Sunday morning at 10:30, it’s a little hard to swallow that anybody with a serious interest in seeing the movie hasn’t already seen it, but surely these people must exist.

I have thoughts that must be thought about the movie, though, so here’s the obligatory warning: here there be spoilers.

Furthermore, in the interest of not turning this post into a 3000-word monster, I’m going to break it up. Here, then, is the first installment. With extra spoilers.

On Protagonism:

Let’s get one thing clear: the movie is a thrill-ride. It’s hard to look away (and harder still to walk away, for example when your six-year-old in attendance has to go to the bathroom for the third time just when you feel yet another climactic battle looming) for fear you will miss something, and miss something important. The film is eminently watchable.

But from a narrative perspective, I found myself getting frustrated. Every time you start to settle into the groove with one of the bands of heroes (and the fact that there are multiple bands of heroes is maybe the first indicator that trouble is afoot), you have to cut away for an update on the other bands of heroes. There are at least three — and sometimes four — groups of heroes doing different things in different places until the final battle. And this is a Marvel movie, mind you, in full swagger, using every tool they’ve honed over the last ten years — every subgroup is rife with internal conflict between its members, cheeky one-liners, and hilarious deadpan.

In short (too late!), as an audience member, I am fatigued with protagonists. Who am I supposed to root for and identify with? Banner and his performance anxiety? Thor and his abs? Stark and Strange trying to out-Alpha each other? Captain America and his beard? I’ve seen almost all of the movies at this point, and each of these characters is lovable, so I want to root for all of them — but there just isn’t time. Because the cast is huge and the plotlines are tangled and far-reaching, the film is paced like a coked-out cockroach skittering for the sugar bowl. You can’t identify with a protagonist, you barely have time to recognize them in their shiny new duds (seriously, it’s like every superhero gets a costume upgrade in every sequel) before the movie is shuffling you off to the next thing like an overbooked tour guide. Character development? Forget about it. There are no less than a dozen heroes here — it’s enough work just to remember who’s doing what.

Very frustrating.

Until you shift your perspective.

There’s no consistency to be found amongst the heroes. Some are all business while some crack wise, some concoct elaborate schemes and others wing it. The movie even seems to shift in tone based on who you’re following at the moment. No, the consistency comes from the bad guy.

Related image

Lurking behind everything that happens is the swollen, ill-proportioned face of Thanos. And once I realized that this movie is pulling a fast one on the audience, I became much more sanguine in my thinking about it.

Thanos is the villain. He’s also the protagonist of the movie.

Thanos hogs the screen time. Thanos has all the character development. Thanos chews on the scenery for every shot he’s in, and thanks to the magic plot devices, he’s literally hiding around every corner. Thanos, in other words, takes the hero’s journey in this movie. Every twist and turn that happens in the movie is centered not on the Avengers — a kicked anthill is as frantic and as useful as they seem to be in the movie —  but on Thanos.

He hears a call to action when his home world is plunged into strife, and goes on a quest to deliver the same peace to the entire universe (just, you know, not in the way we’d prefer). He meets a mentor character who helps him in his goal (Red Skull, we hardly knew ye!) He and his band of villains have all the try/fail cycles. (Didn’t get the time stone there, didn’t get it there — third time’s the charm.) He has to make sacrifices to meet his goal. And the final victory brings him within an inch of his life.

Thanos is the protagonist of Infinity War. And the filmmakers know this: in the closing credits, where we usually get the grim but reassuring message “The Avengers will return,” we get instead “Thanos will return”. That’s not just a cheeky jab to drive home the stake in the hearts of all the Loki fanboys (and fangirls. And the fanboys/girls of Spiderman. And Groot. And Black Panther. And and and YOU GET THE POINT). It’s an acknowledgement that this movie is not about what — or who — you thought it was.

Once you’re down with that, the movie becomes a lot easier to digest, narratively speaking. The quest we’re on is Thanos’s, and the Avengers — legion as they may be — are but speedbumps on the residential suburban street leading to the eradication of half the population of the universe. Our favorites are cannon fodder — occasionally seriously inconveniencing the real protagonist, but ultimately never really standing a chance. Which is the posture of all the villains in every other Marvel movie to date.

I’ll point out that this trick of the light only works because the filmmakers have pulled the cinematic bait-and-switch of turning the Infinity War story into two movies. When Thanos receives his comeuppance, as he must in the next chapter, Thanos’s current arc, which is riding the hero’s trajectory, will come crashing back down to reality.

But once you engage with the movie on its own terms (and failure to meet a story on its own terms is basically the biggest source of strife, not just in Marvel movies, but in any cinematic universe — I’m looking at you, butthurt Star Wars fans), it starts to make a lot more sense.


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.


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.


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