On Using the Time You've Got
Sometimes a day just kinda gets away from me, and I just get nothing useful done. The typewriter doesn't come out. The short story scenes don't get written. And then it's 11:30 PM and I'm sleepy and it's so very easy to think, "You know, screw it. I'm going to bed. Writing can happen tomorrow."
But there's always another 15 minutes.
My laptop is coming to bed with me, and I'm going to poke at the half-formed scenes in my head before I lose consciousness.
13 Ways of Procrastinating on a Short Story
The short story I'm currently avoiding working on occurs in a very strange conceptual overlap. Writers do that, and poets; I'm convinced it's a universal part of creativity. Totally unconnected thoughts get their wires crossed, thanks to that unruly and involuntary associative quality of imagination, and the resulting circuit does things that the electronic components manufacturers never dreamed of and would probably get superstitious about.
It starts with a recent homework prompt from Melanie Tem's writing group. (I seem to have mentioned this before.) She shared an anecdote concerning a writer she knew who'd been working on the same novel for years. He'd constantly get within sight of the end, then tear it all up and rewrite from the beginning. It's not all that uncommon; how many of us progress from incremental rewrite to incremental rewrite without ever finishing the first draft? But the prompt was, "Why can't they finish the book? What would happen if they did?"
Then a friend alerted me to an anthology I ought to be submitting to, and its theme dovetailed nicely with the prompt. Clearly, if the book ever ceases to be in a constant state of construction, something nasty will escape and do terrible things.
And of course that thought led to the famous Winchester Mystery House, which Mrs. Winchester kept in a constant state of construction for, so legend has it, a fairly similar reason. More or less. Meanwhile, flailing around for some sort of structure, I considered conversations between the writer and a psychologist, the latter cluelessly offering irrelevant professional insights on writer's block. Kind of like Richard Matheson's short story "Person to Person," in which the shrink tries to convince the narrator that the phone in his head is just an invention of a troubled subconscious mind. It isn't, of course.
So far, so good. One thought leading in an orderly and explainable fashion to the next. What I don't get is why the poem "13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" popped into my head as an alternative structural frame.
So there you go. Lots of weird ideas and not a word written. As author Kit Whitfield put it, I've got mostly ideas about a story but not much in the way of ideas for a story. I don't have a good handle on the main character, I don't know what they write, I can't really see where they live and work, and I can't decide on the supernatural mechanics involved in trapping an infernal monster inside an unfinished novel manuscript.
But I've printed out the poem and hung it over my desk, and I've read some literary criticism about it. I've done some research on the Winchester House and the fallen blackbirds. I've got ideas toward the structure of the story, ideas like "Thirteen small scenes, each somehow connected with a poem stanza and having a blackbird in it somewhere if only in a very minor way. The last scene should involve the bird die-off and a day that dawns directly onto evening because of the snow." Structural clues like that often makes the difference between thinking in futile circles and actually writing something that goes somewhere. It's how "And On the Seventh Day" finally got written all those years ago; once I knew that there should be seven scenes, one for each of the days of the week in an oblique parallel to Genesis 1, I could write the story.
Remember those New Year's resolutions?
I made some. One of them was, "Devise a writing schedule with great specificity, and stick to it." This post is to announce my having done the first half of that.
It goes something like this:
- Four days a week (Tue.-Fri.),
- write a 6-hour work day,
- which includes
- blogging gigs,
- and paid content writing.
The time spent on blogging and content writing can shift. The people paying me to blog and write articles can shift. But the fiction has to happen. It absolutely does, and for no less than 2 hours a day. It's what it's all about, after all. So I'm trying to put it closer to the beginning of the day, to make sure it happens. Or at least to change the order of tasks around every day so that no one thing becomes The Thing That Never Happens. (About this, more later. Like, later this week. Probably.)
As to the second half of that resolution... well. Tomorrow is Monday. A whole new week. A whole new week plus an extra day because Abbondanza has not yet called its volunteers back to the farm for the spring. Every week is a chance to start fresh! And so I shall.
That blogging once every work day? Blogging here? I'd like to get back into that too. Consider this a new start.
The Author Discovers a Kryptonite Strata in Her Daily Diggings
So recently I've been trying to create and adhere to a useful daily schedule, as per New Year's Resolution the First. And one of the things I want to get done during a typical work-day, rather than, say, once per week, is a spot of web content writing or other project guaranteed to result in money. In trying to improve my output there, I have figured out something really important about researched content writing, such as a writer for Demand Media Studios ends up doing. About how I do said writing, anyway; your mileage may vary.
You ready? Here it is:
Too much data kills.
So I'm researching an article about fruit trees and how they metabolize stuff. This naturally leads to college course study guides describing photosynthesis and cell respiration. And the photosynthesis equation, which I dimly remember from high school. And the krebs cycle, to which I attribute most of the physical pain and nausea that resulted from my taking the AP Biology test (which I passed, but which the University of Washington had absolutely no use for, so there went uncounted hours of my life I will never get back). And molecules of ATP and ADP and NADP, some with ionic plus signs on the end signifying something or other and--
And this is a $15 article I'm writing, here. I should not feel like I have to write a chemistry thesis. But I'm staring at these course study guides and my brain is spinning and my tummy is churning and writing is not happening.
Then I find a PDF describing the process in a chatty, breezy tone and from a broad top-down view rather than from under a microscope. It's all "Light hits leaves, therefore chemical energy, therefore water breaks down and carbon dioxide breaks down and viola, oxygen and glucose! Yaaaaay!" And suddenly things are very simple in my head, and I'm mentally composing the first two sections of the paper. Yaaaaay.
It really comes down to finding the right reference articles that have the right balance of info detail. Also to knowing what kind of info needs to go into the article, so I can distill the right amount of detail from a microscope-level description of photosynthesis if I need to. Also remembering that I'm only getting $15 to $20 for the article, let's keep the time spent per article short, OK?
Besides, I've got a novel to edit. I can't do that if I'm spending all day attempting to relearn the krebs cycle.
The Book Thief: A Literary Confession
When I was in fourth grade, I stole a book.
I won't say it's the only time I've been a thief. As a youngster, I once "borrowed" a few pennies from my grandmother's table when she and her daughters were playing penny-ante Boo-Ray. In fifth grade once I picked up fifteen cents, the exact amount of spare change you got back from a dollar from the lunch cashier at St. Catherine, telling myself that found change on the ground was fair game, even the ground right underneath the monkeybars right after classmates had been hanging upside down there. As an adult in the workforce, I've committed my share of "oops, I cooked too many hot dogs, these will have to be thrown out" and I've taken home the odd office supply item too.
But only in one case did I steal a thing outright, with no rationalization prepared, with no contrived justification in my head but only a blatant desire for a thing that wasn't mine. And it was a book.
There was this battered copy of Edmund Wallace Hildick's The Active-Enzyme, Lemon-Freshened Junior High School Witch amongst the random collection of middle grade books in my home room. It was on the bottom shelf, half-invisible due to the dog-eared state of its spine. Already a committed fantasy reader, attracted to stories about kids and magic, I settled down on the carpet to read as much as I could before my block of free time came to an end. I read it over several days, nibbling it and biting it and swallowing it whole over a series of free periods. I loved it.
I loved it so much I took it home with me and never brought it back.
Actually, depending on how you count vices, this book was the occasion of more than one.
Arrogance, for instance. Thinking that what I enjoyed must necessarily be univerally enjoyable, I eagerly brought it to the teacher's attention when she was next looking for read-aloud material. Shame and embarrassment soon followed when my classmates bored of it and the teacher abandoned it before the end of Chapter 1.
Then there's witchcraft itself, and heresy, and disobeying one's parents. This was the book that firmly cemented in my head the notion that casting spells was something I could really do, thus laying the groundwork for my discovery of witchcraft as part of a religion people actually practiced. Which the Catholic Church was probably not down with, and my parents definitely weren't down with.
See, unlike most stories of youngsters doing magic I'd read until then, this one was realistic. Hildick's protagonist, Alison, is neither spirited away to Narnia nor visited by fairies nor given supernatural gifts. Instead, she finds a book forgotten on a shelf and begins experimenting with the magic spells described therein. The synchronicity wasn't lost on me: I, too, had found a book forgotten on a shelf, just as though, meant for me alone, it were disguising itself against other curious eyes. And the spells Alison performs are clearly spelled out on the page, easy for a reader to try -- complete with Alison cavalierly substituting whatever came to hand when the grimoir called for things she couldn't find. And the author left the results of her spells deliberately ambiguous: coincidence, or magic? You decide.
Remember the furor over kids turning to witchcraft over Harry Potter? I found that ridiculous from the start. Any kid who tries to emulate Rowling's wizards will be disappointed on the first attempt. No, if you want a book that gives real-world-followable instructions on magic that you can convince yourself actually worked, and bears certain resemblances to modern-day Wicca, that's Hildick's book.
So. Fiercely wanting to hold onto my newly found witchcraft instruction manual, freshly convinced that I was alone in valuing the story, and worried that the teacher, having been made aware of its existence and its universal disapprobation (well, near-universal, but I was a known freak; I liked Neil Diamond and I was a girl who played with Transformers), might cull the shelves and make the book vanish forever... well, I simply preempted her, and performed the vanishing act myself.
I still have it today, even more battered than ever, squirreled away in a chest of precious things. I get it out and reread it periodically. It's a damn good book. Hildick died in 2001, recently enough for me to feel keenly the regret of never getting a chance to tell him how that book changed my life. And it did. The witchcraft thing? Superficial. I'd have gotten there eventually. No, there were more important effects. In that book, Hildick spoke to the pre-teen's constant undercurrent of frustration in a mature flowing language that challenged the young reader to competence. He didn't talk down to me; he understood me, and he respected me. In under 300 pages, in a book published three years before I was born, he conveyed to me what it was to be me.
Being a child means being surrounded by, ruled by, and often belittled by a sea of adult voices. Those adult voices said that if I thought I was being treated unfairly, I was wrong and it would all make sense when I was older. They said that if I was unhappy it was because I brought it on myself, usually by being disrespectful. They that if I was frustrated I must be overreacting. If A then B. QED.
But Hildick created the character of Alison, and from the first page her frustrations are respected even when they are overreactions. Her sense of injustice is validated even when no one really can be accused of being unfair. In writing Alison, he told me I was not alone. I wasn't a freak. Gods, it was good to hear.
Why am I telling this story now?
Well, see, I lied way up there in the third paragraph, about that being the only time I stole something outright. Sort of. I mean, had I told this story this morning it would still have been true. Um. Except not if I hadn't been very good Tuesday afternoon...
I confess. I have discovered in myself a disturbing tendency to wish to liberate books. Specifically, neglected books. Books being misused as decorations. While others steal coffee cups from Denny's, I'm tempted by the monogrammed blank hardbacks in the Banana Republic outlet in the Lakeside Mall. (Why does a clothing store have a decorative pile of books? And why not use real books from a library sale? And how cool would it be to use one of their blanks as my next dream diary?) The obviously valuable collectables getting dusty at the Dark Horse, those I don't think I'd touch...
...but this book that's now in my canvas tote bag, it was published in 1981, it has library markings all over it down to the shelving sticker on its spine, it was hardly a valuable collectable, and it wanted so badly to be read.
When I was at my cousin's pre-wedding cocktail party at a French Quarter restaurant, I stole a book...
December disappeared. Have these New Year's resolutions instead.
Is December over? Yes, along with 2010. Did I finish a new story draft or revise-and-submit an existing story? No. Am I feeling ashamed of myself like a shameful little shame-filled thing? Why yes, I believe I am.
Only that sort of feeling never got a person anywhere without its being scrapped for parts first. Those parts turn out to be "motivation to do better" and "recognition of what it takes to do better."
So. January 2011: The month of doing better. Now with New! New! New Year's Resolutions!
If I weren't so persnickety about "meme" has a definition, effing learn it I'd call it a "meme." But I won't, being persnickety about such things. ("Persnickety." Hah. It is to chortle. How about "vehement and rageful like unto fire"? That's better.) Instead, I'm calling it a list of New Year's Resolutions for Writers. I posted it as an Examiner Hot List today, probably making it a bit more prescriptive than it ought to be. Now, I'm gonna post the personal version here.
I resolve to...
- Devise a writing schedule with great specificity, and stick to it.
- Come to each scheduled writing time with work-in-progress intent.
- Investigate publications local to me.
- Volunteer some portion of my writing time pro-bono.
- Decide on a Big Goal and begin working toward it.
On the other hand, I'm not going to entirely waste writing time this week. This week takes up far too much January for that. Some work will get done. Also some concrete thinking; the above list is great, but only as a vague outline. As a blueprint, it lacks actionable instruction. I'll be working on the blueprint this week. I'll just be working on more of a chaotic schedule until my return to Boulder, is all.
All for now. More later. Happy New Year!
Annual Fair Warning of FROOTCAKE
It's only fair to warn everybody: It's that time of year again.
Tuesday I went to the grocery and picked up half a pound of slivered almonds; varying amounts of golden raisins, currants, dried strawberries, diced dried pineapple, diced dried papaya, and candied ginger; and a buddha hand citron.
That night I did my best to julienne the strawberries. They, the raisins, and the currants went into a mixing bowl with 1/2 cup Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey, an additional shot of which went into me.
Last night I sliced the citron into inch-long thin strips (in between turns of Dominion: Prosperity -- that second one's a YouTube link, btw) and candied the heck outta them. While they were cooking, I sliced up the candied ginger and set the results aside. Then I turned off the heat when the ice-water method said "Stop already! You wanted the thread stage? Dude, I don't care that your thermometer isn't showing higher than 220 degrees, your thermometer knows nothing, we're rapidly approaching the soft-ball stage! You want citron pralines? I didn't think so!" Strain and dry.
This morning the citron is well and truly turned into candy, and the reserved syrup is doing very yummy things to my morning cuppa tea. I'm contemplating heading back to the grocery for sugar, as I've run out. And then maybe heading over to The Container Store, if that still exists, to pick up new containers to store beans in, since that's what's in my big, round, can-handle-a-tube-cake Rubbermaid container.
And then mixing and baking the fruitcake.
Seeing as how I'm a couple weeks late making with the baking, I'll need to use extra whiskey to get it drunk between now and Solstice.
So! Warning duly emitted, it is now time to get on with the business of the day. About that, one hopes, more later.
Writing! In Avon! With the Avon Lady!
- 631 words (if poetry, lines) long
- 2,986 words (if poetry, lines) long
So I'm celebrating NaNoWriMo being over by getting the heck out of town. Whee! Bridget and I didn't exactly intend the timing to work out this way -- it just happened to be the first weekend available at the Sheraton Mountain Villa from when I called back in early October to make the reservation. I made the call sort of late; Bridget had to kick me electronically about it. "Avon lady wants to go to Avon!" I emailed back, "Good idea!"
Somewhere along the way we started a tradition of treating ourselves to a writing retreat once a year or so. There are worse ways to make sure an annual time share week gets used.
The first time we did it, during one of our daily pedestrian pilgrimages from the Sheraton to Loaded Joe's, Bridget noticed the statue standing at the traffic circle where Avon Road and West Benchmark meet. "Is that the Avon Lady?" she said? Then, maybe five years later, she became an Avon Lady herself. The connection wasn't causal, though it may have been gestaltic. That first trip is also the origin date for our tendency to refer to our favorite bar/cafe/wi-fi hotspot as "Exploded Joe's." It only takes one slip of the short-term memory to start a tradition. (Ask me sometime about "fermentas" in musical notation.)
So. On a writing retreat. But am I writing? Well... two Demand Studios articles in two days is more than I managed all November. And I've kept up with my Examiner pages, which I did manage to maintain more or less throughout NaNoWriMo. Thus and thus for the daily professional hackery. But what about fiction?
Goal the First: Daily free-writing, also known as "Story Idea Du Jour." I did it Wednesday, the day I finally threw up my hands and said, "You know what? Today's my day off." And I did it Friday morning here in Avon. I'm getting something really juicy about a book that's like the Winchester House, in that its creator believes that something awful will happen the moment that it is no longer actively under construction. Possibly a demon will escape.
Goal the Second: Grab a story from the pile of stories waiting to be made ready for submission, and work the hell out of it. I've decided on "Unfinished Letter" but I haven't done any work on it yet. I think I may be in that stage of composting that resembles procrastination. I have my hard copies with peer critique notes on them; I think I shall read them before I sleep tonight. Also, I'd like to get my hands on some epistolary literature from the U.S. Pioneer West at the turn of the twentieth century, in hopes of shifting the voice away from Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and more towards something like, I dunno, that's the point, I don't know. More like the U.S. Pioneer West at the turn of the century, that's all.
But of course we are in Avon. We are not holing up in a hotel room and writing nonstop. We're on vacation. That means Karaoke with Sandman at Loaded Joe's (I don't care how many photos Sandman puts up on Facebook; I only got up on the stage once! This year!). That means walking our feet flat up at Beaver Creek Village and nearly getting flattened by skiers. That means paying homage to the Avon Lady statue, eating at Fiesta Jalisco, drinking our share of Loaded Joe's "Irish Americano", toasting marshmellows for s'mores at the fire pit by the pool.
Also, that means feeding ourselves lovely meals prepared in our minimal villa kitchenette. We're very proud of this. The Sheraton Mountain Vista has rooms of two basic floor plans, one small and one large, paired off into two-bedroom lockoffs. John and I actually own a week in the 2-bedroom unit, but what we had left to use during this season (there's an exchange rate involving StarOptions[TM] and three basic seasons) got us the smaller floor plan. And the smaller unit has, as far as cooking goes, pretty much a sink and a coffeepot and a combination microwave/convection-oven. Also a certain amount of flatware and cookery aids.
Using just these resources, here's how dinner went tonight:
- In the large, shallow, uncovered dish: 1 Field Roast brand "Hazelnut Cranberry Roast En Croute". These are fantastic and only produced during the holiday season.
- In the smaller, covered casserole: 2 apples, sliced but not peeled, mixed with 1 packet syrup from Denny's and about a tablespoon cinnamon from Loaded Joe's coffee condiment bar.
- Place roast atop rack in oven. Place casserole, its lid on but upside-down so as to take up less vertical space, below rack in oven.
- Oven buttons: "Roast", "425", "45:00".
- With about 15 minutes remaining, remove apples from casserole and pile around uncovered roast. Drizzle juices over roast. Return roast to rack in oven; finish baking. Wash out covered casserole meanwhile.
- Pull roast from oven and set to cool. Meanwhile, follow the microwave directions for a packet of Uncle Ben's Long Grain & Wild Rice, Sun-Dried Tomato Florentine. Nuke it in the covered casserole, mixing in a bag of Eating Right brand Broccoli Stir Fry mix.
- Eat. Make happy noises if so inclined.
Clearly we are mad geniuses. But then, what else do you expect from two authors?
Today Is My Day Off
With that declaration, begone guilt and come early bedtime!
That is all.
Day 30: A Winner Is Me!
- 53,268 words (if poetry, lines) long
And not just in the conventional 50K sense. But I have finally gotten to a point of completion with this draft.
Wellll... OK. I haven't yet written the denoument. But I'm forgiving myself that for now, mainly because I'm still unsure of its shape. Its rough shape is clear, but not the details. I need to think on it a bit more.
That aside, I've written each of the three major layers of conflict in which the book culminates. There's the Earth conflict, involving what the Earth antagonists were after and how they are finally stopped; I'm not entirely satisfied with it. I didn't really give it the development it needs. But it's there enough for now, hinted at and then resolving in a very large house fire. Then there's the Uberreality conflict, in which Chender's scheming comes to light and must be stopped, and is stopped. Even that rings a little shallow, but this too I'm going to throw at the rewrite. If a first draft is an act of discovery, a first revision is about implementing all the things I discovered on my way to the end of the first draft.
Then, finally, there's the... spiritual conflict, I guess. To use the classic literary terms I learned in high school, if the first two layers of conflict are Man versus Man, the final is Man versus Self. Well, Woman versus self, really; Jet may in fact be genderless, but I've been writing her as a woman this whole book long.
(Huh. How appropos. Tangent! I'd only today been reading about the distressing tendency in Hollywood to take genderless characters, for instance most of the cast of Monsters Inc., and give them male names and voice casting; the "default person" is male. I took a genderless character and gave it a female presentation instead. I was mainly rejecting male-as-default-action-adventure-character, and het-as-default-romance; I ended up subverting male-as-default-person while I was at it. Tangent ends!)
Anyway, I'm really not sure of the outcome of Jet's Woman versus Self conflict. Except roughly. I can see it as I used to see things when I was near-sighted and I wasn't wearing my glasses: the shape is discernible but the details are blurry.
And that's pretty much all I'm going to say. I want to publish this thing in the near future; someday, this will be a book you can purchase (or download) and read. I wouldn't like to spoil the ending.
At least, no more than excerpts to this point already have.
With a harsh, involuntary laugh, I salute Chender with my left fist, a motion that pretends to punch a hole in the ceiling. Then I sit up, toss the five stones into my mouth like so many aspirin tablets, and I simply swallow them. As I suspected, no sudden transfiguration happens, no mystical effect. They drop heavily into my stomach and sit there, undigestible. I hope they receive a damage from their new location. Whatever power Chender expected the gems held, he was wrong.And that's it for now. The draft goes into the metaphorical bottom desk drawer for a month, during which time, as they say, the crap is allowed to mellow out of it. During that time, hopefully, my brain will do the lovely composting things it does when I'm trying not to think about a work in progress. Then, in January, I hope to do some of the major restructuring required before pickier points can be wrangled.
Then I lay back down, eyes still open, and allow my human body to be human once more. Human sensation returns, animal need. The lungs breathe because they must, and thick black smoke rushes in. The skin sweats and reddens and finally chars as human skin does when engulfed in flame. It's like nothing I've ever felt before. Strange, that in all my assignments I've never exited the dream by fire. It's worth doing. Everything is worth doing, once. Living, loving, dying-- some things are worth doing more than once.
The pain is briefer than I had feared. It sharpens and contracts into a singularity of pure agony wherein nothing exists but itself. I am engulfed and snuffed by its utter self-absorbed existence. Then, abruptly, it drops to nothing. Maybe my nerve endings have all been destroyed, and I am incapable of feeling more pain. Or maybe I'm simply succumbing to smoke inhalation and leaving the body behind. For whatever reason, the pain vanishes and leaves a blank behind it, inner darkness foglike swallowing the smoke. There I find a point of clarity that I mistake for waking. I allow myself to rush toward it, a being without a body going home at last.
But something interrupts me on my way there. The darkness flashes to lapis blue and the motion of my being halts in the center of that sky. The stones relinquish their power, or their message. A familiar presence wraps me round and shares with me an intimate space of awareness.
So familiar-- so much like the being I wove my being with while my human disguise sat grieving on a motel floor. But something about her is different, strange. Unearthly. What a strange word to think; am I not un-Earthly myself? Unexpected in a way that creeps over me in shades of awe and growing wonder. I venture a thought forth: Lia?
Meantime, through December, I mean to hit the queue of stories awaiting revision. And I hope to keep up this daily pace of fiction and blogging. At the very least, I'd like to maintain a five-day work week, just as I've intended all year. The beautiful thing about NaNoWriMo is, it normalizes dailiness. Let's see how long I can continue at a comparable pace through December and into 2011.
Lastly, I should mention that these musings are coming to you live from the lobby of Boulder's St. Julien Hotel. I'm here with seven other local Wrimos, a couple of them already sporting happy purple WINNER! bars on their profiles when they arrived. The rest of us sort of cascaded at a rate of one per half hour or so. It's really neat, attending the Final Push Write-in and hearing "Fifty thousand and one! Yes!" and "OK, word count verified! I'm a winner!" followed by eruptions of applause. It's also really neat to cross that finish line in such circumstances oneself. And yes, I did cross 50k yesterday-- but I didn't get my word count verified, didn't get my word count bar to turn purple, didn't get to watch the congratulatory video from NaNoWriMo Headquarters or download my web badges and certificate, until I was here with fellow Wrimos working hard into the evening. It's a good place to be.