November already?

I always get edgy in November because of NaNoWriMo.

Even though I’ve made a promise to myself not to start any major initiatives for a little while, even though I’m committed to short-fiction for the foreseeable future, even though I don’t really want to start a book right now… November just makes me want to write a novel anyway. I got through about 20,000 words last year around mid-November, but then never quite caught up again. The aborted draft is sitting somewhere, waiting for me to return. This time, an old friend has been poking and asking me to give him another chance.

Years ago, I tried to make a comic unsuccessfully – I’ve always had terrible luck retaining the attention (or interest, I can’t tell which) of any artists. Some day, I’ll be able to just pay someone to draw for me. Until then, I’ll just mutter wistfully about ideas that float by and wave farewell when they round the bend downstream, never to return. Anyway, those early, aborted ideas have been a fertile breeding ground for other ideas that linger long after the comic itself has faded, and this is one of them.

It’s vaguely autobiographical, which makes me leery, but I think I can keep enough distance from it to allow it to be its own thing, and let the character breathe, and be, on his own. It’s the kind of book that I’d love to read, but seldom see on shelves, perhaps because books like these are unmarketable or because, well, maybe it’s a dead genre after the sixties did a thorough job of exploring it (albeit mostly in non-fiction and traditional literature, not in speculative fiction or dark fantasy.)

Regardless, the idea – and maybe even the will – is there, it’s strong, and getting through 50,000 words would give me a solid boost of confidence. Not that I need very many more boosts, I’m on a fairly decent streak right now, but NaNoWriMo is one of those elusive animals that hunters go after every season. I’ve missed a few years since the project initiated more than a decade ago, but most years I toss my hat into the ring. I’ve tried. Many times, often loosing steam or missing too many days of writing, and the closest I got was about 30,000 words.

Maybe the current burst of creative instinct is what I need to get moving on this. Perhaps this is what I’ve been missing in the past. And if I’m entirely honest with myself, it’ll be a way for me to avoid getting sucked back into Warcraft again, with the new expansion coming out. But then, I’m going to have to put a hard stop to most of my other projects. Once again, I find myself marooned on an island of uncertainty. I think I’m leaning at a steep angle toward diving in, but the next couple of weeks might change my mind yet.

If you’re going for it – I wish us all the best of luck! It’s a tough climb, but someone needs to finish it, and it might as well be you and me.

Initiative

Taking the initiative isn’t difficult for me. When problems rear their heads, I’m always eager to jump in and start solving them. At work, this has led to me taking on some fairly tough programming projects and they’re the kind of things that get you noticed. They get you a seat at the table in the boardroom when major initiatives are being discussed.

I was able to take advantage of that privilege for a long time. For many years, I had a place in the boardroom. But as the company has evolved into a more structured and corporate entity, it has also evolved more doorways. Portals to hop through, documents to sign, time accounted for, and technology management has grown skeptical of initiatives that aren’t driven by the sales group.

It leaves me frustrated – I have ideas, I want to drive initiatives, but instead, I throw them out in meetings and watch them flounder on the table, gasping for air. I wind up being the mouth-piece for innovation or improvement or even research when it’s my superiors who should be doing this work. Alas, it isn’t so, and I return to my desk with an empty piece of paper instead of excited notes about something new to research and develop. The mundane project-tracking task-list has replaced the passionately scribbled words and hastily drawn diagrams outlining new ideas.

While the change has frustrated me, I can admit that there are some advantages – it keeps wasteful work at bay, and makes my use of time more specific, ensuring that whatever I do is directly actionable. Sometimes, projects drag on a bit too long, research doesn’t work out to prove a hypothesis and time (and resources) gets wasted. (I’d argue that time spent closing a dead-end isn’t wasted, as it keeps that possibility from popping up again, but that’s neither here nor there.)

With my projects at home, I have a similar problem as I outlined earlier. Too many pots on too many stoves, because ideas are cheap and execution is fucking hard. It’s not just a question of picking and choosing, it’s a question of applying that initiative in impactful, actionable ways. I might scoff at task-lists, but I’m never more productive than when I’m working off of a task-list.

In fact, I find most task-list applications (because I’ve used at least a half-dozen by now, and have settled on Google’s Keep) to be woefully inadequate and have often played around with the idea of writing my own task-list program that ties into e-mail, calenders, build hierarchies, inter-dependencies… but there’s that ugly specter of available bandwidth, and do I really want to buy a new kitchen right now?

What the point, today? Well, the point is, I’m happy that I haven’t given up on my initiatives. I still toss them out, sometimes even lobbing huge, quivering Tunas on the table that splatter everyone with briny water and flop about, demanding attention. If the poor thing winds up unloved, ignored and dead – well, at least I’ll have Tuna for lunch.

Too Many Pots

Or maybe too many stoves.

With our brand new son in daycare, the days have become pretty hectic, and after a dormant period of easy maintenance, my work really took off last month with a number of high-profile projects, alongside some training… it’s been a mouthful. Did I just go from cutlery, to stoves, to food? Ah, well.

Regardless, I was able to squeeze in the time and finish the second half of my writing for that contract work I mentioned last time. It was similar in that there was a hard word limit and structure that I had to conform to, but it kept it focused again, I couldn’t meander on and had to remain on point. I really think contract writing is good for me, it’s teaching me to look at what I’m writing and examine it.

I recently organized my documents to better manage the short fiction side of things, and know what I should be working on and where. I think that’s a broader conversation I need to have, about how structure – not just in writing, but in organizing the things around the writing process itself – has been helping me… but probably later. Anyway, I came across a story I’d finished some time ago, but always felt strange about it, it felt a bit exploitative and I thought I could do better.

So, I took it out and began to read it and it surprised me how much I overwrote. I don’t know if it’s just a reaction from this really strict writing I just did, but I think in the last year or two I’ve really changed focus to examining what I’m writing and why it belongs in a story. That I like it isn’t enough, if I want to sell it. There’s pleasure in indulgent writing, I enjoy writing in a way that lets me sprawl, that lets me really stretch and let the words pour out faster than I can type… but it isn’t conducive to fiction, and it really isn’t good for trying to write anything that you want to sell.

For the last week, I’ve been picking this story apart, thread by thread, and I wonder if it wouldn’t just be easier to rewrite it entirely. But there are good bones in there, scenes that make me flinch in the sudden light or scenes that vibrate like bass strings in the dark.

Telling myself that I don’t have time, or that I’m too tired, or whatever else isn’t really an option anymore. I’ve been outlining new story ideas and setting them aside after a few hundred words and all of them are clamoring for attention. Some of them might even be good! And I can never keep the call of a novel at bay for long. Sadly, it’ll have to go unheeded till I’m at a place where I can be confident that isn’t going to just sit in my hard drive for all of eternity like my last book. I want to be good enough to write a book.

For now, these six to eight thousand word stories are where my focus is, and I’m building a structure around it, so that no matter how much food I’m eating while cooking on multiple pots in various kitchens, I can still sit down and write a couple of thousand words a day. It’s been a good year so far, I want it to continue.

An Unexpected Kickstart

A friend of mine is working on a game project that looks quite fun, but was suspended in need of some writing. I, meanwhile, was suspended in my own dead space, colliding with blocks and depression left and right, till there was nothing left to say or do except to stare the cursor blinking on and off in a white screen. Regardless, hearing him talk about his needs made me – impulsively – offer my services.

We talked about what he wanted, I threw out some ideas I had based on his description of the kind of game and world he wanted to create, and offered suggestions on altering the antagonist’s motivation, create more of a meta-plot to bind together the various groups he was describing, and an overarching narrative rather than distinct stories. He agreed to give me a shot, and I began to pound out words.

The writing had to be very structured due to the nature of the project – there were eleven settings that had to be outlined, within about 450 words each. Each outline was broken down into four segment – a brief overview of an area and then three spots of interest within them. I created more structure by organizing the three spots into a friendly area, the area of the enemy’s strength, and an adventuring node.

I also went through the various geographies and assigned each some kind of setting flavor – whether Arthurian, Arabian, French Military, Medieval, Germanic Fairy Tales – you get the idea. In the end, this didn’t help me very much, as the themes were more muted, but it was a good starting point and it put the right visuals in my mind. To organize this in space, I sketched out a very rough, circular map that helped me arrange things a bit better.

The first draft was laborious, and then my son was born. I took some time off from the project, while I handed it in for notes. When I got back to it a week later, I had some feedback to work off of. The second draft was much cleaner, I revised considerably, and rewrote a few sections entirely.

I tend to overwrite and my word-bloat grows quickly. Here, I was arrested by the structure. Further, the project wasn’t mine – there was no ego involved here, I was writing to please someone else. These factors played a considerable part in allowing me to write quickly and efficiently, and while the writing went a week or two past the deadline, what I turned in was pretty good. It even got me a second project from him, which I’m working on now – taking the various characters and settings and combining them together to form story devices for the players to hook into for their own games.

Even better, the writing finally got me through the years long block I’ve been struggling with, and for the first time in ages, I’m thinking of new ideas. Last week, I finished the first draft of a story, with some nine thousand words that needs to be pared down by a thousand or two words, and right after I finished that first draft, I began another, entirely new story with the opening paragraphs of a third also thrown out during lunch this week.

And I have this contract writing to thank for this renewed energy. Finishing things is such a motivation and inspiration, that it doesn’t matter what it is that you finish – it could be anything, even contract writing. I don’t mean to diminish the writing I did for this game – it’s good, and I enjoyed it, but it’s still not my personal writing, so there’s always a separation there.

I can’t wait to see where this current burst of inspiration takes me.

Family Expanding

Back in March, I wrote about the imminent spawning of my second child.

Well, he arrived back on the tenth of July. My world has turned a bit backward and upside-down since then, in a good sense for the most part. We called him Nadim. He’s a quiet kid, with dark hair, a small, curiously inquisitive face, a beak-like mouth that lacks any teeth, and blue-gray eyes like my grandfather, who died while my son was still incubating. His eyes dart around like manic fish in a milky ocean, afraid of an uncertain world full of weird colors and abruptly changing sceneries, where the only security comes from the voice he heard when he first grew ears. No matter where my wife goes, when she speaks, he turns toward her immediately.

His hands are small enough that when he wraps it around my finger, it only covers half the digit and his toothless mouth is always working, as if he’s trying to express the state of his being without language or sound. His lips shiver every so often, no matter the temperature, and when I holds his limbs together in a knot and then let go, they open wide, the hands ready to grasp at something that might save him from falling. A futile, but sweet gift of evolution, for the baby has no strength to hold itself up. His neck is so weak that his head wobbles, like a bobble-headed doll.

My older son has gone through a few phases and arrived at last to the station of acceptance, despite being initially charmed by his brother. On first meeting, he held the infant in his lap and sang him a song, creating a moment that filled me with such complex emotions, I felt ready to burst as if I couldn’t contain all the feelings. Things have become more prosaic since. We retain our late-night rituals. In a sign of the ever-marching pace of time, he achieved his own milestone, starting Pre-K yesterday. Things change, things move on. The seed plated so recently is already a sapling, the plant you were watering has turned into a shrub.

I think my greatest regret is that my grandmother died before she could meet either of my kids. Much like my younger son who was incubating as my grandfather died, so did she take her last breath while my first son grew in his mother’s womb. I took so much pleasure from introducing my first son to my grandfather, that I – greedily, I know – wish I had been able to introduce both of them to the people who were my surrogate parents.

Regret doesn’t even buy you a cup of coffee, I know. But that doesn’t keep it from knocking on your door, crashing on your couch, putting its dirty feet on the table and drinking that brew you’d been saving for a special night.

Anyway.

In the dusty aftermath of those initial nights after the baby was born, I found myself wandering Manhattan streets at midnight after leaving the hospital in a hazy overemotional state that demanded some room to breathe. Since then, time has started to contract and become so much more valuable. Green moments are hard to come by, everything is laden with importance and moments become heavy, demanding recognition. They pile up until there’s not enough space on the table to lay them all out, and dissect them, as one wants to, in the contracted frames that this urgent time demands Pressure adds up, becoming unbearable enough that it makes me lash out.

I leave Rorschach patterns in my wake, walking towards something old and new at once. I excavate them for words, and then cobble them into stories. Down in the word-mines, where I continue to toil, there is some light at last. Someone has turned on the generator, it makes the Canary sing, adding some cheer to the gloom. If I find a suitable gem for polishing, maybe I can make my way back out, for a little while.

I should now be back to my regular schedule of irregularly posting whatever comes to mind.

Revision Bloat

I know better.

Revise after you finish. It’s the most basic of laws in writing. Don’t falter your momentum, keep pushing through the word count and scenes till you get to the end. But somehow, I always start at the beginning and work through, every time I sit down to write. And when you only have an hour after dinner, a break at work, or whatever, most of that time is eaten up fiddling with this sentence or that. I could spend days just working a single scene over and over till I have it just right, and leave the rest of the story unfinished.

Because, if the opening, or that one transition scene, or that one conversation, or whatever, isn’t exactly perfect, well, what incentive does the reader have to continue? Flawless logic, my dear, insecure ego. And whilst I fumble about the limbo of revision bloat, the ending remains unwritten, and so long as the story isn’t finished, I can’t be bothered to submit, can I? It’s a vicious, cruel trap I’ve set.

Catching myself red-handed doesn’t help as much as it should. It just makes things more awkward and uncomfortable, as I continue to do the thing I’m not supposed to, after it’s been pointed out to me, right in front of the person shaking their head, no!

That’s really my biggest problem right now, without deadlines of any consequence, projects can drag on endlessly, bloated with edit after edit, draft after draft. And eventually, an overworked, fussed-up story looses any grit and grain, become as smooth and uninteresting as baby-food and then it’s natural to let it go because whatever potency it once had is now sapped.

Some people benefit incredibly from a prolonged and extensive draft period. I feel my work is the opposite – the most successful stories have been ones I revised maybe once or twice, and then let them go, usually due to deadlines for contests or submission dates. The more I fuss, the less likely I am to let it go.

After years of silently thinking about writing, jotting notes about ideas that led nowhere, starting stories that faltered less than a thousand words in, this is the first, completely new story that I’ve never thought about before. It’s so easy to keep going back to old ideas that didn’t really get their due the first time around. And you have a starting point there, things already written, that you can borrow or steal to pad out the writing. It’s a cushion.

I didn’t want that security this time – I wanted something completely new, an idea and a culture and a setting I hadn’t explored at all. That’s what I’m churning out now and maybe that’s part of the reason why I’m being so fussy.

It’s been a long, and difficult labor already, but I know where to go, and what to do. I just need to pull the trigger on the last couple of scenes.

I can’t wait to finish.

Nudge the Needle

It’s difficult, starting from zero.

You’re fighting to get the needle to budge, even a little, and that’s the hardest thing of all. Starting from rest – even physics says so. You’re guided by something, maybe an image, or an idea that won’t leave you alone, so you have to get it moving somehow. But the needle is buried at zero, the engine sputters and coughs – that hum of power is long gone – the angle of the hill is too steep, and any number of other circumstantial things will stand up in the way of words.

Or that’s how it feels every time I sit down to write anymore.

Gathering momentum on a moving project is easy, it’s like the thing supplies its own ambition and motivation. The words come faster than I can write – which has its own problems, but I’d rather a torrent of useless words that need hours of editing and pruning, than this labor intensive grind to get the thing moving in the first place.

You start to doubt yourself, every sentence comes under scrutiny, cause and effect swap places, time frame changes, beginnings are re-written a dozen times, and the supporting cast changes names, appearance, number and beliefs like coats in the spring. On, off. On, off.

That’s probably the biggest hurdle in the way of my writing, that start from zero every time I work on a new story. And maybe that’s why all I want to do lately, is work on long projects, that will take me months if not years to do. Meaty, chunky books that I can get lost in for ages, a good 120 thousand word deep pool to dive into, and hide from the light.

But what good is a book, for a writer who hasn’t been published in four years? All the success from the past squandered in years of depression and so we find ourselves starting from zero, over and over. Every time it gets more difficult to get moving. The answer seems obvious, of course, even if it isn’t easy to implement.

Don’t turn the engine off. Let it idle, just a little, every day. Keep the insides lubricated and moving, and slowly, the engine will heal. That hum will come back. For now, if you have to get off and push the damned thing up the hill every day just to be able to ride back down and pop the clutch, and try to get the engine to start, well, sweat it out.

Just turning the key and hearing the engine chug isn’t doing any good. Finish the first one. The others will follow. They must. Because failure isn’t tenable. For now, I’m with all the other writers down here, in the purgatory of mud and muck, hunting for gems in the dusk and gloom.

I wish you luck, if you’re down here with me.