Tag Archives: writing

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.

It Never Goes Away

The fact that I suffer from Depression is a pretty important aspect of my life, personality, and day-to-day existence. It begins in the morning when I take my pills every day, it continues when I have my weekly therapy session and it interrupts every day activities when I’m catching myself in the gap between thought and reaction, to prevent a collapse down a dark and self-damaging road.

Things are not as bad as they were before I started treatment, every day was a mystery, would it involve crushing anxiety, or overwhelming feelings of loneliness and depression? Perhaps a blinding and impotent rage would down the monotony of gray days in a red blur. My life was unpredictable, but along with it came a deep and endless well of inspiration, my emotions were always so raw and exposed, the hurt always sitting on the skin, that I needed to bandage the wounds all the time, and writing was that salve. I poured myself into my stories, and when I read them now, they’re dark, creepy things swimming with all the negativity and self-loathing I could cull from my being and transform them into words.

I know correlation does not imply causation, but it’s pretty difficult not to look at the pills I take every morning as a block, a chemical neutering of my creative instinct. Blaming the round white pills is easier than admitting that maybe I have nothing to say. Blaming the pills is easier than admitting that maybe what came easily before requires more effort now, and what used to be a gift plucked from trees might now need to be dug out of ugly and gnarled roots in dirty, rocky earth.

But what never goes away, is the unpredictable attack of this anxiety, this loneliness, and they come out of nowhere, even surrounded by friends and family in a room, suddenly you’re the only person there and everyone else might as well be a cardboard cutout. Their voices fade away and the room becomes a dull and dim picture where you see nobody and nobody sees you.

Years pass, countless pills pass through your body, endless words pour out of your mouth in therapy, and one day, late at night, the feelings return and nestle back into seats as if they never left.

It never goes away.

A Stream of Consciousness Regarding True Detective

This won’t be very linear, and if things sound like a mixture of voices rising from different corners of the room, well, that’s kind of how the show made me feel. I liked this story from start to end. You can poke holes in the most perfect structure, and this one isn’t immune to criticism by any stretch and writers far better than me have already performed far more telling autopsies.

Some of these autopsies have been less than kind and I feel they miss not just the point of a genre show, but in their eagerness for political correctness or in their bitterness at misreading the red herrings, loose the value of what’s at hand. But there is also sound and just criticism at hand, so let’s get the worst of it out of the way early.

True Detective isn’t kind to women, not in the show, not in the reality of casting or roles, and not in terms of screen time. Maggie starts out as and remains the only woman with anything real to do on the show, and even her presence is a fleeting ghost touch. All other women serve as mutilated MacGuffins, deceased props, or an artificial source of comfort or conquest for the men who exclusively attack the narrative. There is no forgiveness or excuse to be made for it, and much like the director, all I can say is that while I acknowledge this, the story called me strongly enough that I could do little more than shrug at this regretfully and move on. I might note that the show isn’t much kinder than minorities, but I think that’s stating the obvious.

Anyway.

Visually, there is stark beauty here beyond what I’ve seen in a long time in a genre show. There are moments of sheer, absolute awe and horror. Consider the wide angle helicopter shots of sprawling Louisiana countryside, where every single pixel is in perfect depth-of-field frame from one edge of the HD screen to the other, while a yellow sun cooks the vegetation and kudzu vines hanging like ropes from sagging trees, or setting-sun blaze that sets fields of green shimmering like an otherworldly landscape draped in living skin. Look at the way the camera roll in a languid, low sweep around Rust as he gets out of the car at Childress’ house separating focus from the thick, green leaves and trees in the background and Rust, and then as the camera stops, the focus inverts immediately snapping the background into a blur and Rust into crisp focus. Look, also, at the confrontation between Childress and Rust – when the killer stabs Rust and lifts him off the ground. Does he actually commit the physical act or is that how Rust feels, like he is being torn by his own body weight?

These things imply, hint, and suggest at the world of the show. A visual medium must use visual metaphors and similes to extend the story. There is some wonderful writing out there about the use of framing shots and the way the first three episodes use the medium-framing of Rust and Martin to build audience trust that makes their unreliable narration that much more unnerving as it begins to unravel.

The dialog is similarly rich – it works for me but it has also received some criticism – when Rust talks about towns and places that feel like they’re not real, just someone’s idea of places, he’s not just talking about the physical space. He’s implicating all of civilization, that this illusion of security and sanity is just a thin filter that we’re forcing around a savage and meaningless world. We’ll come back to this point later, I think.

Besides, he’s not wrong within the context of the show, and if he takes liberty with language and speaks with a hint of baroque eloquence (or, perhaps, a misguided attempt at lyrical language depending on your taste), well, I bare him no ill will to that end. I find my own way of speaking to be more convoluted than necessary, but then, I find it’s the precise lack of necessity that gives things pleasure.

So, writing, past the point of necessity, can be a pure joy if executed correctly. I’m still trying to find that balance, myself.

Anyway. Focus. Right.

Let’s talking endings, intent and the insidious nature of fiction.

The last episode has served up a considerable amount of consternation, particularly among those who’ve concocted a private narrative and concluded a path they wanted the story to take rather than waiting to listen to the writer – and that is both the genius and weakness of the writing. It sketches a world so rich, convoluted, and expansive that it cannot possibly be all of the things it evokes in its audience. That is part of the problem with works this good – they are brilliant until the mystery is solved.

Look at Twin Peaks for an example of something that worked until it didn’t and quite suddenly, it plummets from zeitgeist to cultural waste bin – once the mystery is solved. David Lynch, a man who understands the nature of mystery like few others, has said many times that mysteries aren’t meant to be solved within the story, or rather what he means, or what I take him to mean, is that they aren’t meant to be solved for the audience. That there is deep work that the audience must do along with the narrative.

I think True Detective is very clever about the way it solves the mystery, and the way it leaves it untouched at the same time. It tells a story, and hints that the truth seen, heard or implied is not the complete truth, regardless of what the characters, the episodes, the actors, the writer or the director have to say about it. That last part is important, I think, and perhaps not even a deliberate choice.

I suggest that the story in insidious enough to infect reality.

Consider, this is a show that repeatedly hammers home the fact that the narrative structure is unreliable, that the lead characters are not truthful, one commits infidelity, another has lived years lying about his own identity. The circumstances surrounding the mystery itself are shrouded in conspiracy and deceit, and even minor characters are repeatedly shown to be lying, secretive people, shrouded in layers of mystery. And yet. When the story gives us a conclusion, when the narrative provides us with a neatly tied up package, when the writer and director claims the same, that the answers are all provided for, we accept their word. The cleverest trick the Devil ever pulled, they say, was to tell the truth.

Whether Carcosa, or the King in Yellow exist is irrelevant, there is hard evidence in the show that proves some level of conspiracy, whether Rust is involved in it or not (I think not, but there is little evidence for that other than the actual ending monologue (see below)). It’s also clearly evident that the writer sketched out a world far bigger than he intended to tackle.

Because if you boil it down, if you take away all the conspiracy stuff and just look at what these eight hours are about, it’s not about the supernatural or the video tape or the King in Yellow or the Tuttle family or anything bigger than a single woman’s murder. That’s what Rust and Martin are hunting, the man they’re after is Dora Lang’s killer, nothing more.

So, yes, I can go on and on about the other men in the video tape, the spiraling birds or the vision of stars that Rust experiences, the hard evidence of the photographs and video tape that Rust claims to find in a Tuttle home – any small part of that hints at a much bigger story, at secrets that would make for compelling storytelling and a wider arc than the eight hours allowed, or could hope to accommodate, but that doesn’t diminish their influence on the story that was actually told.

These dark, unsolved secrets act as clouds hanging over a landscape, a storm with vast and ranging reach but we ourselves can only shelter and secure ourselves from its damage against us, cowering as it passes us by. The local damage in this case, is Dora Lang’s murder (and, by extension, Childress’ other victims). We submit to a force of Nature that we can’t control despite all illusions about exactly how much control we exert on reality.

Every time a storm rips across a community – named storms, hurricanes, repeatedly mentioned in the show, by the by – we manage to be surprised. Why is that?

Because the storm brewing in the show, the conspiracy, the horsemen, the Tuttles, whatever, that black and ominous cloud, that suggested horror waiting in the wings with unseen scope and scale is what the Yellow King is. That’s the horror, that’s the darkness, because all we can do is protect ourselves from the smallest personal damage possible. And that’s the truth that forces Rust to embrace the illusion he struggled against for so long.

Anyway.

Of course, there is weakness in the last episode, the final clue is classic deus ex machina of the weakest sort, and there are a couple of lines that made me roll my eyes after seven perfect episodes, but the actual conclusion hangs together because it solves the smallest mystery it needed to solve. That was the contract the show made with the audience at the beginning and it fulfills that deal, it made no deal regarding any of the other, grander, darker things hinted at.

Look at how the murderer turns out to be no more than a mentally ill, simple man with a cruel, sadistic streak – that, the story suggests, is the true face of evil. No grand spiritual meaning, just plain, every day cruel, misguided, dumb, meaningless sadism I prefer to think that the grand designs hinted at in the wings of the show (as above) carry more weight, and by leaving those things hidden, that weight will, forever, remain, and the characters, the places, the mysteries and the show will live on in my mind.

That’s good writing.

To me, anyway.

Writing the Wrong Thing

What you want to write isn’t always under your control.

At least, that’s how it works for me. When the urge to write comes, it brings with it a certain mood and texture, a certain light and sound and smell that can produce only the unique product of its parts. To write anything else feels difficult and it becomes a struggle to wrestle the urge to write into a usable form. The words slip away, the feeling falls down, and the sky opens up into a void.

The cursor keeps blinking on a blank screen.

What to do, then, when the urge to write is for things that seem of little consequence? Right now, I want to write extensively about the game I’m playing, about the internal dialog of my character and the story of his own struggle with things. I wrote about him before, here, but he’s becoming more and more prominent in my head, talking to me, demanding attention.

He’s poking me with his scimitar and asking why I’m ignoring him when he’s right there, waiting to go on adventures across green ocean and Caribbean blue sky. And I have to keep pushing him off, say no, go away, I have other writing to do, serious writing, things I can send out to magazines but he doesn’t understand. It’s hard to put aside one’s own existence for the sake of the maker’s interest.

And that right there, is a telling and terrifying thought – perhaps a story to be found in exploring that sentiment. Hmm.

Another Week, Another book

About a year ago, my wife (who’s rather well established as a writer these last two years) wanted to put out an anthology to fund a local New York City charity, and sent out a call for stories. She was kind enough to ask me to contribute something, and I did. The anthology, Urban Harvest, was released last weekend, and here it is.

Urban HarvestIt’s odd to go for such a long dry-spell without exposing any writing, and then to suddenly have two stories in the ether is rather jarring. It feels like a splash of cold water in the face, or being dunked into freezing ice after a hot and sweaty day. Jarring, and exhilarating at once. If you’d be so kind as to pick up a copy, you’ll find in it, a few wonderfully warm (and a couple of particularly chilling) stories and you’ll be benefiting a charity – City Harvest – that feeds the homeless at a difficult time of year.

So much work left to do – with Slipstream City Volume 1 already out and about, we need to being work on Volume 2.  We have a theme, we have an idea, and soon, we’ll put out a call for stories to collect with a rather brief reading period, I imagine. And of course, there is my own writing to get to.

There, that’s about all the promotion I can muster for my own material right now.

The autumn is barely begun, and already the season is full of projects eating away at time. Something about the smell of October that makes me want to paint the grayscale world in bloody shades of red. Best get to writing before the fleeting season escapes with all the muses riding on its patchwork cloak of leaves.

Tick-tock!

Writing and Roleplaying Games

In my non-existent free time, I like to play role-playing games of various sorts.

The memory of Dungeons and Dragons dulls many interests when the subject comes up. That was over 40 years ago. Today there are many new, innovative games that push the boundaries of gaming, going so far as to attempt social change around the world. Many are creator owned, and the cottage industry is a wellspring of diversity, inclusiveness and vibrant creativity.

That said, sometimes, a body just wants the comfort of familiar things, and so I play in my old Dungeons and Dragons group, and there is something like community in the familiar ritual of dice with many faces, character sheets and pencils. I have been gaming for nearly 20 years, and I don’t intent to stop till they put me in a grave.

One of my favorite things about gaming, is the amount of creativity that comes out of it. Often, gaming requires one to come up with backgrounds, for characters, for scenarios, new situations. Some of the more innovative new games go so far as to include all the players into the narrative role, granting them god-like powers to expand the story and fill out the world – a privilege usually reserved only to one person in older games, the one guiding the game.

In our current, recently rebooted game, I’ve recently started playing a new character and wrote up a brief background for him. Often, I find that this kind of writing is very effective in getting me to empathize and connect deeply with a character. Ultimately, my favorite thing about gaming is the deep sense of immersion in character (and story, and world) that lifts one from this reality into another, for a few brief hours. Not because something is lacking in this one, but rather, to search out a new horizon.

Here, then, is what I came up with.

Continue reading