The Writer’s Abstract Feedback Loop

Feedback LoopWriters are legendary for trying to avoid sitting down to work, and once we’re there, keeping our butts in the seat is like being chained. When we’re done, we leap up like joyous gazelles (in my case, more of a joyous water buffalo, but you get the idea).

Murray, the news writer character on the old Mary Tyler Moore Show, said something like “I like starting my writing, and I like finishing my writing, but I don’t like the writing part of my writing.” Lawrence Block gets into this, too, in Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, when he talks about how writers are the only artists who seem to have a level of, if not aversion, a sort of nagging unwillingness to do their work.

Not all writers are the same, of course, and I’m sure they vary widely in the level and manner in which they experience the phenomenon. Isaac Asimov would happily write from dawn to dusk, even on vacation, while Mr. Block, at the time of writing his book, stated his preferred stint at the keyboard was about three hours.

To paraphrase Block again, a musician will work all day in a studio, say, and then go out to play for free in a jazz combo for half the night. Visual artists are always picking up the brush, chisel, mouse or whatever, in their off hours. Performing artists like actors and dancers pick up extra work or take extra classes just for the sheer enjoyment of it.

So why aren’t writers more often the same way about plying their craft? I had an idea about this the other day, and having an idea for me is so rare a thing I thought I’d share it.

The other arts I mentioned all provide the practitioner with some kind of concrete object to work with. For example, when a visual artist is working, she first conceives the idea to, say, put a stroke of red paint on the canvas. At that point, the stroke is right in front of her, a concrete object. She can look at it and think, “That’s perfect,” or “That should be longer.” Musicians can hear their notes. Performers can get feedback from directors, fellow performers and audiences.

Writers, on the other hand, are never dealing with concrete objects. Instead, we are always dealing with symbols for objects (and everything else): words.

Let’s say a writer is composing a sentence describing a sunset.

  1. He starts with the sunset in his imagination. Nothing concrete there.
  2. He writes the sentence. Nothing concrete here, just a string of symbols. It has meaning, but it’s still just symbols.
  3. To react to the sentence the writer reads the symbols and reconstructs the sunset in his imagination from there.
  4. Once the written sunset is reconstructed, the writer compares it to the original, which is even less than symbols, a tissue woven of thought.
  5. The comparison results in an adjustment to the original imaginary image, the image symbolized by the words, or both.
  6. The writer adjusts the symbols (words) on the page to reflect the adjustments.
  7. Lather, rinse, repeat.

What the writer is doing here is recreating the object for herself, over and over, as many times as necessary, to get the desired results. Several of these reflections and reconstructions may take place in the span of a second, often not even perceived by the writer as they are taking place.

All this is stressful on the writer’s poor little noggin! The feedback loop, without anything concrete to support it, is simply tough to maintain. A rare few writers appear to do it without much effort, but most of us get near the keyboard and an unconscious alarm bell goes off: “Not that again!”

Is there anything to do about it? The only thing I can think of is to self-edit as little as possible while you’re drafting, but even then, the feedback loop is going on at a subconscious level—that’s my hypothesis, at least. Aside from that, just practice good work habits and give yourself every advantage you can. The stress of the abstract feedback loop comes with the territory. It’s the price we pay for creating worlds all our own.

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Wrong Reasons for Writing

BukowskiA few posts ago I shared my thoughts on reasons to keep writing. On the flip side, there are several motivations for writing that just don’t hold water. They might keep you going for a while, but in the end they’ll spring a leak and go dead flat.

Proving Worthiness. I will here admit that as a young man I felt inferior to most other people and wanted to prove that I was worthy to walk the earth. When I found I had some talent as a writer (a debatable proposition, I’ll grant you), I adopted that as one means by which I might climb the mountain of human acceptability. It failed miserably because when my writing failed, as it did at one point, so did I. Eventually, I made (or was granted) the fortunate discovery that as a child of God or, to say it another way, an integral part of interdependent being, I was worthy just as I was. Some years after letting that discovery take root and bear fruit, I am writing just what I want to and not worried about proving a thing (at least I can say this of my better self). Don’t look to writing or any other talent or achievement to fill the void of an inferiority complex. Only love and wisdom can do that, so make those your first priorities.

You Should. Some people are good at writing, which is great. What’s not so great is that sometimes people who are good at something feel obligated to do it, even if they don’t like it that much. That’s a trap and a ticket to misery. You’re a lot more than your talents. Your being is comprised of preferences, personality quirks, learnings and a thousand other things in addition to your talents. Your obligation is to do your best, do good and do no harm. That’s it. I have a wonderful and wise young nephew who scored higher on the “verbal” portion of his college entrance exams than on the “math” portion (although his scores on both were high). When an elder suggested he look into some kind of writing profession, he replied that, while he was proficient at it, he just didn’t like writing that much. He studied Management Information Systems instead and is very happy. Take that writing “should,” and all your other “shoulds,” for that matter, and throw them on the ash heap of unhappy notions. Then do what you like.

Fame. If you’re writing because you want to be famous, you’re taking a real long shot. To be famous, you’d have to make outrageous sales, and that’s hard to do, to say the least. And even if you do move the units, there are plenty of writers out there with big sales that still don’t get recognized at the gym or put on the cover of tabloids. Who needs fame, anyway? Do you really want stalkers? Paparazzi? Increased risk of IRS audits? And say you do get famous, then what do you do? Having achieved that goal you’ll be left with just your writing, and if that’s not enough, your career is done and along with it your fame.

Money. I like money just as much as the next person, but writing for the gain of it is a killer. I tried to do it once, a few years ago. I looked at what seemed to be selling best, read some of it, read some instructive tomes and then tried to write something easily salable. The result was wooden writing and an unhappy writer. Ultimately, I stopped writing fiction altogether. Writing for money cramps your creativity and it might not work anyway.

Specialness. This is a little like fame but at a more personal level. You’re writing to be cool, so you can say at cocktail parties “I’m a writer,” or so you can look down just a little from your elevated position as Observer of the Human Condition. Sooner or later you’re going to realize that many people are better writers and observers than you, and not only that, but nobody but your mother perhaps one or two other people thinks you’re so special, even if you do write. Then you’ll be stuck in the muck with the rest of us ordinary humans.

Conflict at the Core

BoxingI recently reread J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, in honor of the movie’s coming out later this year. During the process, I ran across the following sentence:

“Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway.”

What Tolkien is getting at here is the importance of conflict to stories. It is possible to have a narrative without conflict, but it’s bound to be flatter than a bug after an encounter with a windshield.

I remember one example of a conflict-less story with a distinct lack of affection. It was a story about a doll. The doll started as a gleam in a little girl’s eye, continued as a conversation with a grandmother, was constructed of scraps collected by the oh-so-poor family, given to the little girl and then loved forever after. The closest this tale came to conflict was the family’s poverty and their struggle to collect the scraps, which wasn’t so much a struggle as a hunt around the old cabin or farmstead or whatever it was.

This was an oral story. The teller, or writer, if you prefer, had all the advantages of body language, gesture, vocal tone and dramatization. The teller used all these as best as possible, yet to call the result insipid is an insult to insipid things everywhere and indeed to the concept of insipidity itself. In fact I wish I could think of a word that conjured a greater level of insipidity that “insipid,” but I can’t and I don’t want to use and adverb.

Anyway, it was bad. Why? No conflict.

Now, what if the story had gone differently? What if the family had had to go to some extreme lengths to get the materials for the doll? What if the little girl was dying? What if the doll got made and was then stolen? What if the doll was possessed by evil spirits? What if the favor shown this little girl made her sister jealous and that had a disastrous effect on their relationship? The possibilities are myriad.

I think the reason we love stories with conflict, at least in part, is that conflict always involves something we must try to overcome. That overcoming presents us with a challenge and it’s wrestling with challenges that, win or lose, sharpens our characters and makes us grow. Conflict is at the very heart of our evolution as a species—would the first hominids have stood upright to see farther across the savannah if there hadn’t been predators to watch out for?

So, if your story seems a little flat, look at the elements of conflict. It could well be they need some pumping up.

How about this? Once upon a time there was an dad who, after a fantastic but exhausting day with his son, needed to come up with a Wednesday blog entry, even though he was was reeling with fatigue…

See you next time. I’m going to bed!

Top Ten Reasons to Keep Writing

Keep on Truckin'10. You Have a Dream

I suppose there are some writers who create simply for its own sake and put the manuscripts in a box or use them to wrap fish, but most of us would like to be read. It’s grand to have a dream! A dream can get you up in the morning with enthusiasm and put you to bed at night with hope. Just don’t take it too seriously or get too obsessed with it; that takes all the fun out of it. This one is number 10 for a reason!

9. You Love Words

Words are some of man’s most ancient and entertaining playthings. To rearrange them so they hang together so that each one supports the others, to really wring the music out of them is one of the most rewarding, fun activities to come along since eating. People who don’t write may not understand this, but writers do. We love this stuff! Why stop?

8. You Honor Your Ancient Lineage

Storytellers of the written and oral varieties are part of a long line of artists going back to the first people who told tales of the mammoth that got away or the bear that attacked while they were gathering berries in the woods. For centuries, they’ve entertained and enlightened their fellow human beings. As long as you’re writing, you’re part of the lineage of poets and bards.

7. You Won’t Let Your Readers Down

Whether you’re writing for millions or just for your mom because she’s the only person who’ll read your stuff, you’ve got an obligation to your readership. They’re waiting with baited breath, or at least polite attention, to see what’s going to happen next in your riveting tale. Don’t let them down!

6. You Love Crafting the Middle

Working through the middle, finding your way from the initial crisis to the resolution while trying to provide entertainment and perhaps enlightenment, is an excellent game. It’s like going on a long, exciting adventure into unknown territory.

5. You Love Starting

What could be more fun than starting the newest work? There’s sketching and planning and plotting and then, at last, the first words of prose on the paper, the first movement of characters, descriptions, dialogue! I suppose the feeling isn’t universal, but for me the fun of starting is one of the chief reasons I keep coming back to the keyboard.

4. You Love Finishing

Ah, the finish! Dealing out just desserts to the bad guys and rich rewards to the good… or crafting some variation thereof, if your tale runs darker or lighter. There are fewer greater satisfactions in life than tying up all the loose ends in a neat package and writing “the end.” And at that point you’ve earned a martini, which is pretty sweet, too.

3. You Want to See How the Story Turns Out

It’s the wise writer—and I’m sure you are—that writes for the enjoyment of the tale. If you keep going, you get to see what happens next. Even if you’ve planned things carefully, there are still surprises waiting that will change your story’s path. Stop writing and you’ll never find out what they are; keep on and they’ll reward you.

2. You Appreciate God’s Gift

Whatever it is that sends you to the keyboard is a gift from God to be treasured and used gratefully. If you don’t believe in an objective God but are spiritual, think of your writing as a gift of the universe, or part of your particular expression of Buddha-nature. If you’re an atheist, appreciate the fact that your evolutionary path led to your having this gift. Your writing is part of the unique set of traits that makes you unique; it was meant to expressed.

1. You Can’t Help It

The number one reason to stick to your writing is that you just can’t help doing it. Not writing for you would be like a flower not blooming. In Samuel R. Delaney’s novel Dhalgren, which I read ages ago, there’s a reference to some people having “a wound that bleeds poetry.” Maybe you have a wound, maybe not, but it’s certain that stories and words are flowing out of you like water from a spring and their destination is the page. Hold them in and the earth around either explodes or rots from the inside and caves in. Keep writing because you must.

The Beat Sheet: A Revelation

Sometimes a simple thing can be a revelation. Thus it was for me with the scene list, usually known by its cooler name, the “beat sheet.”

Though I had heard it mentioned before, I really didn’t know what the beat sheet was until I happened on Larry Brooks’s lucid explanation of it in Story Engineering. It sounded so good I decided to try it.

The beat sheet isn’t a complex thing. It’s just a list of your scenes with the minimal information necessary—a scene name and maybe a nutshell description. Having assembled your list, you start fooling with their order, adding some, subtracting others, until you have a satisfactory skeleton on which to hang the flesh of your tale. You can use whatever you like to make your beat sheet: a word processor, post-its, index cards, scraps of tanned cowhide. The main thing is that you can rearrange, add and subtract scenes with ease.

The beauty of the beat sheet is that it removes detail. If you’re trying to sort paragraphs describing each scene, or scene-construction forms of some kind, it’s too easy to get lost in the information about each scene, rather than simply concentrating on where it should go in the story. With the beat sheet, you get a couple of crystalline drops of data for each scene. These info-chicklets are easy to hold in your short-term memory, so you can juggle several at once and better determine how they affect each other, which insight goes into your scene arrangement. (FYI, the average short-term memory holds about seven items at once.)

I was stunned by my results with the beat sheet. I had a big sub-plot and realized it wasn’t working at all, so I cut it to the bone. I figured out how to tighten up the first three sections and began forming an idea of how the concluding section would go. Most valuable of all, I found that events in need of foreshadowing and questions in need of answering  jumped out at me like clowns popping out of a miniature Volkswagen.

Valuable as it was, the beat sheet still left me feeling a little short in the coherence department. I didn’t have a good sense of whether all the beats made sense or not. Now it was time to bring back some detail. The next step, writing a descriptive paragraph for each beat, helped me take care of that. Writing a paragraph about each beat helped me analyze it to be sure it held up as a worthwhile part of the story and also fit well with the other beats. I discovered more plot gaps, more foreshadowing needs and even a few more scenes that needed adding.

I’m still working on the descriptive paragraphs, but they’ll be wrapped up soon and when they are I’ll be in great shape to plan each scene to the point where I can write it easily. Then – joy of joys! – I’ll actually write those puppies!

Bonus! Here’s a beat with a descriptive paragraph to give you a concrete idea of the process.

1.      Colin gets killed. The Dough(boy) is Flat Colin gets hit by a truck while delivering pizzas.

Colin is toodling along on his scooter with the music turned up. [Look up some real scooter/motorcycle fatal wrecks and base the scene on them.] A truck runs a light; Colin doesn’t hear it coming and gets hit. He sees the famous bright, white light beckoning him forward. [What about other people who are in comas? Why don’t they get the same reaction as Colin? And if there are more like him, why don’t they recognize the smell of someone still connected to a body? Maybe de Retz, in his eagerness to make good, broke the rules and snatched a soul (Colin’s) meant for Limbo, Heaven or some other area; that hasn’t happened before. Also, Colin is the only person ever to find out he is in a coma someplace and that affects his behavior.] [If Colin is meant for Heaven, why is his body still alive? Maybe Colin’s angel is the one to escort him to Limbo or coma holding area.]

I Completed a Character Interview and Didn’t Scream Once

Crafting Unforgettable CharactersI’m getting ready to go to the beach today (Monday) and by the time this is posted (Wednesday) I’ll be there, so this entry is going to be brief!

Ahh… I can already hear the sound of that gentle Gulf Coast surf… oh wait… where were we?

Oh, right. Blog entry.

I’ve written before about how mind-numbing I find the work of doing fill-in-the-blank character sketches. You know…

Hair color:

Place of birth:

Favorite food:

In the past, two minutes of this was enough to make me run screaming away from the laptop.

Since then, I’ve rethought matters. In my current project, I found my lead character was sort of an automaton. He was doing some cool stuff, but I didn’t have a real feel for why. I mean, sure, he’s in Hell and he wants to leave, but I am talking about a deeper why, the psychological underpinnings of his nature that make him respond to the situation in the exact way he does.

When I started using terms like “psychological underpinnings” I knew I was in trouble, so for help I turned to Crafting Unforgettable Characters by K.M. Weiland. This little book is available at the author’s website for the price of signing up for her mailing list. I had already read Weiland’s Outlining Your Novel to some profit, so I went for the free book on characters.

I haven’t read the whole thing. Instead, I skipped right to the section on the character interview, which gives you a load of, yes, blanks to fill in. It’s an exhaustive list with some items that go beyond the usual fare.

I have completed three of these lists so far and found them very useful, especially for Colin, my main character. I didn’t complete every question; I don’t think you have to. Having done this work, I think I have more than an automaton now, I have a person, or at least the start of one.

If you’re in need of help with character development, I recommend this character interview list. Now, here’s a list I came up with and that’s all. Off to the beach!

Name: Colin Davis

Background: White, middle class

Birthday: July 23, ????

Place of birth: Columbia, SC

Parents: Hortence “Bebe” and Frank Davis

What was important to the people who raised him: Hard work, discipline and the American Way

Siblings: One sister, Mary Eliot

Economic/social status growing up: Middle class; a bit strapped after his parents divorced and his mother became primary caregiver

Ethnic background: White bread Scotch-Irish

Places lived: Columbia, Atlanta

Current address and phone number: N/A

Education: BA, English, USC

Favorite subject in school: English; creative writing, medieval studies

Special training: Pizza making and delivery. Society for Creative Anachronism fighting and weapons making. Singing

Jobs: Cafeteria utility in college. After moving to Atlanta, Pizza Haven guy.

Salary: A bit over minimum wage plus tips.

Travel: None

Friends: Pizza Haven guys, SCA & D&D gang. There is a portion of these that overlaps; these are his best pals; that is, the Haven/SCA/D&D-all-three folks.

How do people view this character: A nice guy, but a bit of a geek. He’s just average size, but has an athletic build from doing bodyweight exercises to burn energy; people wonder that he never played sports.

Lives with: Two roommates in a two-bedroom apartment; two of the Haven/SCA/D&D-all-three folks. Pete and Dundee, known as “Croc” because of the movie.

Fights with: Words and story lines. Sometimes his roomies, but not much.

Spends time with: His friends and co-workers.

Wishes to spend time with: A girlfriend, any girlfriend.

Who depends on him and why: He depends on himself; no parental contributions. His roommates depend on him for mutual support.

What people does he most admire: John Steinbeck, because he was a great modern writer and also took on the King Arthur legends.

Enemies: None

Dating, marriage: He knows some girls, but there’s no romance. He’s a bit awkward about it.

Children: None

Relationship with God: He is sure there is one, but not sure what the nature of it is.

Overall outlook on life: Romantic

Does this character like himself: Mostly, but he demands a lot of himself when it comes to writing.

What, if anything, would he like to change about his life: He’d like to not be poor, to have a girlfriend and to be a successful novelist.

What personal demons haunt him: Both his parents and his sister yelled at him a lot. When he first tried sports—peewee football—the coach yelled at him and he quit, never to play sports again. After his parents’ divorce, it just got worse. He is haunted by the sorrow over the split, the pain and anger of the psychological abuse, the feelings of inferiority that caused.

Is he lying to himself about something: He tells himself he is really a peaceful guy, that the SCA and D&D are just fun escapism, but deep within he is seething with rage.

Optimistic/pessimistic: Despite everything, optimistic. Otherwise, he couldn’t write.

Real/feigned: Real

Morality level: He’s a good guy, though at times mischievous.

Confidence level: He is plagues by an inferiority complex.

Typical day: Work making/delivery pizzas, hang out with friends, write. Weekends and evenings are often for D&D, SCA. Writing happens first thing in the morning and often last thing at night.

Physical appearance: He’s just average size, but has an athletic build from doing bodyweight exercises to burn energy; people wonder that he never played sports.

Body type: Medium, athletic, but not totally ripped

Posture: Upright

Head shape: Like a head!

Eyes: Hazel

Nose: Straight, short

Mouth: Medium

Hair: Red

Skin: Freckled

Tattoos/piercings/scars: A small scar over his left eyebrow from a childhood encounter with a bully, which he won.

Voice: N/A

What people notice first: The hair

Clothing: He’s a jeans and t-shirt guy, with tennis. If it’s hot, cargo/boarding shorts.

How would he describe himself: I’m a fiction writer, so of course I work at Pizza Haven.

Health/disabilities/handicaps: None

Characteristics: N/A

Personality type (choleric, sanguine, phlegmatic, melancholy): Laid-back about most things, but fiery about his passions, which are writing and his friends

Strongest/weakest character traits: Determination is his strength—he is determined to be a successful writer. The inferiority complex is his big weakness.

How can the flip side of his strong point be a weakness: He can be so bullheaded he ignores other factors, ignores the big picture.

How much self-control and self-discipline does he have: A good amount.

What makes him irrationally angry: Bullying or yelling, at himself or others.

What makes him cry: Big life moments—births, weddings, etc.

Fears: Failure as a writer. Never being loved.

Talents: Writing. Singing. Making SCA weapons. Being dungeonmaster.

What people like best about him: His easygoing warmth.

Interests and favorites: N/A

Political leaning: N/A

Collections: N/A

Food, drink: N/A

Music: Medieval music, to listen to and sing [research]

Books: All of Steinbeck.

Movies: N/A

Sports, recreation: SCA, D&D

Did he play in school: N/A

Color: N/A

Best way to spend a weekend: SCA battle during the day, D&D-cum-drinking-game in the evening

A great gift for this person: N/A

Pets: None

Vehicles: Chinese scooter

What large possessions does he own (car, home, furnishings, boat, etc.)

and which does he like best: Just the scooter and his laptop. The laptop is best.

Typical expressions:

When happy:

When angry:

When frustrated:

When sad:

Idiosyncrasies:

Laughs or jeers at:

Ways to cheer up this person:

Ways to annoy this person:

Hopes and dreams: Successful novelist. Happily girlfriended guy.

How does he see himself accomplishing these dreams: Novelist: He works hard and succeeds. Girlfriend: He has no idea, but dreams of her just kind of falling into his lap.

What’s the worst thing he’s ever done to someone and why: He beat the crap out of that bully.

Greatest success: Published a short story in a well regarded regional journal.

Biggest trauma: See above.

Most embarrassing thing that ever happened to him: Tried to ask a girl out and halfway through spilled his beer on her.

What does he care about most in the world: Writing

Does he have a secret: No

If he could do one thing and succeed at it, what would it be:

He is the kind of person who:

What do you love most about this character: That he is so committed and kind of naïve.

Why will the reader sympathize with this person right away: Because he has big dreams and is willing to work hard to win them on his own.

How is the character ordinary or extraordinary: He has extraordinary talent and determination. He has ordinary needs & wants of a young man.

How is his situation ordinary or extraordinary: It’s ordinary except for his writing.

Core Need: His core need is to overcome his feelings of rage and inferiority.

Corresponding psychological maneuver (delusions, obsessions,

compulsions, addictions, denials, hysterical ailments, hypochondria, illnesses,

behaviors harming the self, behavior harming others, manias, and phobias): The maneuver that comes from rage and the inferiority complex is the writing. Also the SCA battling.

Anecdote (defining moment): He pulled a bully off a smaller kid in the sixth grade. The bully punched him hard, giving him the scar over his eye with a ring. After reeling a moment, Colin freaked out on the bully and was all over him. Colin’s dad pulled him off the bully and yelled at him for fighting as the bully ran off. Later Colin’s mom yelled at him and his sister made snide remarks. So, even though he felt good for his victory on the one hand, he felt miserable and put down on the other hand.

History:

Sharing Some Inspiration

InspirationIt’s always good to have someone considered more or less an authority confirm your beliefs. That’s why I want to share some quotes from Story Engineering by novelist and writing teacher Larry Brooks.

Story Engineering contains some of the best stuff I’ve ever read about crafting a novel. It’s practical advice that’s directly applicable to one’s writing, presented in a matter that is neither straight-jacketed by process nor clouded with vagaries.

That’s not the stuff I want to share, though. At least not this week. I want to give you some of the inspirational language from near the book’s end, in Brooks’s thoughts about why we write.

“If you are a writer–and you are if you actually write—you are already living the dream. Because the primary reward of writing comes from within, and you don’t need to get published or sell your screenplay to access it.”

Confirmation! Those who visit this site on a semi-regular basis (both of you) have heard me say similar things before. Writing is its own reward, even according to somebody who actually knows what they’re doing!

Here’s more:

“The inner reward is the gift of life itself. Writers are scribes of the human experience. To write about life we must see it and feel it, and in a way that eludes most. We are not better people in any way—read the biographies of great writers and this becomes crystal clear—but we are alive in a way that other are not. We are all about meaning. About subtext. We notice what others don’t. If the purpose of the human experience is to immerse ourselves in growth and enlightenment, moving closer and closer to whatever spiritual truth you seek—hopefully have a few laughs and a few tears along the way—wearing the nametag of a writer makes that experience more vivid. We’re hands-on with life, and in the process of committing our observations to the page we add value to it for others.”

If that’s not a top-notch assessment of writing’s true rewards, I don’t know what is. We only get one life (even if you believe in reincarnation, you only get this life once) and as writers we get to create a richer experience of it for ourselves and, with skill and luck, for others. If you ask me, it doesn’t get any better than that.

One of Those Days: Writing and the Blues

Blues Man LeadbellyEver had one of those days? Sure you have. You cut yourself shaving. It’s T-minus a nanosecond ‘til the schoolbus comes and junior refuses to put his shoes on. Your spouse appears to have all too accurately recognized your thousand glaring faults and is having a predictably aggravated reaction. It’s raining and when you go to pet it goodbye, the dog barfs on your shoes. Or maybe all those things didn’t happen, but it still feels like they did. Your soul is lying in a heap at the bottom of your solar plexus, which feels like it’s being squeezed by a cold, invisible hand.

In short, you’re depressed.

I think, based on no scientific evidence whatsoever, that writers are a favorite target of this particular demon. I don’t know if it’s the writing that makes you depressed, what with the solitude and effort, or the depression that makes you write, as a release and a means of finding clarity in a stew of emotion. What I do know is that the writing is still there to do, even if you’re blue as the Atlantic on a clear day.

When I feel this way, I sometimes start the day’s prose-making with a free write, just laying words down on the page as fast as they tumble out of my head, with no effort to control them at all. On depressed days, these passages will often start with something like “everything stinks,” or “life is pus.” It’s pretty negative stuff, but I find that after a paragraph or two I get a little more rational. I’ll see that I’ve blown things out of proportion, insisted the universe work the way I want it to, or forgotten to count my blessings. In a half page or a page, I usually feel good enough to get to work.

At other times I get outside and walk for a while. We’ve got a dog now, so I have a built-in excuse for that. I let him lead—within reason—and give my attention to whatever’s happening in the natural world. On these walks, I try to look up and out a little, to take in the expanse of creation. It reminds me of God and the interdependence of all things, which always puts life into perspective and calms my heart. I also pick up the dog’s poo in a bag, which is life-affirming in a really weird, smelly way.

Other things work for me, like listening to music, playing a musical instrument, reading a good book (nothing sad, though), or throwing some paint onto a canvas. You probably have your own list.

One other thing that works: sucking it up and just writing what you have to write. Sometimes the old blues can give your work an edge it wouldn’t have on an ordinary day.

Writing this entry made me feel better. I hope your next depression tactic works for you, too.

To Tweak or not to Tweak?

WaterfallYippee! I’m about to reach a big milestone in the production of Thin Spots: completion of the first third; that is, the beginning. I’m mighty pleased to have made it this far. Now that I have, the question is, do I pause here to go back and rework what I’ve done, or do I keep on writing the draft as it is?

The conventional wisdom says I should just keep going as fast as I can until I reach the end. That way the story doesn’t stop flowing out of my head but rolls naturally along through the middle section, through the ending section and wham, into the exciting conclusion. It’s a pretty appealing scenario, I must admit.

On the other hand, there’s other wisdom (I’m thinking particularly of Lawrence Block) that says, “to thine own self be true,” meaning do whatever the hell you want—it’s your book, pal. So, I’m thinking about taking a pause for the cause and reworking the beginning third some.

Why would I engage in such masochism?

My professional background is in project management, using—Geek Alert!—the waterfall model. In the waterfall model, you finish one phase before another starts. The theory is that each phase should have a solid foundation to build on. I’ve also built a treehouse, single-handed, and let me tell you the supporting struts and frame had better be good to go before you put the floor in and the floor had better be solid because that’s where you’ll be standing for the rest of the job.

I’m thinking that if I tweak the first third, make it a solid foundation for the next part, I’ll be way better off while writing the remainder. I’m not talking about prettying up all the language or making everything just perfect. What I have in mind is tightening up the loose ends. For instance, in “Today is the First Day of the Rest of Eternity,” de Retz has a brass truncheon he uses to whoop up on Colin and Cerberus. The object never appears again. Do I work it in later, get rid of it, or leave it as is? And what about Tanya? In her first chapter she’s taking her soul and Doc’s soul out of their bodies and doing this crazy healing stuff—do I need back story somewhere, and if so, does it come in the beginning section or later? There are plenty of things like that to consider, including the possibility of axing some pieces, like the part where Colin gets swallowed by a fish in the Cocytus—it’s fun, but does it move the plot?

I’m pretty sure I’m going to take the tweaking route, but I’m going to ask my writing group for advice first. I’m also going to ask you, gentle reader, right now. Should I keep going or should I pause to tweak? I’d appreciate your input. Thanks. And stay tuned!

A Writing Environment for the Attention-Span Challenged

When I was in high school, I had a friend who could focus like a laser on his work no matter what was going on around him. If an IED has gone off next to him he would have just scratched his ear (assuming he still had one).

I often wish I had that guy’s ability to concentrate. Alas, I’m a member of the “Attention Deficit… oooh… shiny…” club and have trouble enough mustering the mental presence to put my socks on, much less do anything like homework, or, say, writing.

Even so, there’s hope. ADHD people’s brains naturally set at a somewhat lower level of stimulation than average. To help bring their brains up the average level, these folks instinctively engage in forms of self-stimulation (Hey! Get your mind out of the gutter!) like fidgeting, singing, or jumping rapidly from one task to the other, quite possibly without finishing things. That means I can do the same.

Back when I was growing up, we were too busy fighting off saber-tooth tigers and pursuing wooly mammoths to know about ADHD or ADD, but I’m pretty sure I fell into the category for many years. Even today, I am pretty distractible.

So, I prefer some particular elements in my writing environment. If you’re attention-span-challenged like I am, maybe some of these will be helpful to you.

Oh, but did I ever tell you about the time I was at the beach doing yoga, and my cheap swim trunks were wet, and it turned out they were translucent, and… Oh, sorry. Must… con… cen… trate. Whew.

Background noise. I can’t write with actual music going on and Heaven help me if there’s a TV playing, but some kind of ambient sound helps me focus. I often write in coffee shops and the buzz of conversation provides a stimulating sonic backdrop. If I’m writing at home in my basement office, which used to be the laundry and utility room, the hum of the HVAC equipment and the dehumidifier keep me alert. Of course, there’s always the option of putting on a recording of white noise, or something similar, like forest sounds.

Visual interest. I tend to look up and around a good bit when I’m writing; it gives me a little shot of brain-stim. Given this proclivity, environments with something to look at are best for me. My cubie at the day job is plastered with pictures and such, should I decide to spend a lunch hour of writing there. Coffee shops again, are great because they are designed for visual interest and have the added benefit of all the foot traffic going back and forth. In my home office, I’ve got my paintings on the walls and a couple of crazy-colorful homemade furniture pieces, which include my writing desk.

Comfort, but not too much. I have reached that point in middle age where I love my easy chair. Really. I would love to write in it, but I fall asleep whenever I try. Sigh. Instead, I go for seating that will support my lower back and not be too hard on my old bottom. Some kind of support for my arms is also desirable. I find my cubie is best in this regard, since it has good office furniture designed to accommodate someone chained there for long periods. I have a good office task chair at home, too, and I built my writing desk to accommodate long stints at the keyboard. Coffee shops vary in furniture comfort and quality, but they have the best coffee.

My correctly oriented head. The three preceding paragraphs describe preferences, but, in truth, they are not necessities. What is necessary for me is a brain with the right contents. A good attitude, a willingness to work, self-discipline and a story idea or two are what really make the writing flow. When I can bring these qualities to the keyboard, I can write even in a poor environment. It may not go as well, but it goes, and that’s the great thing.