Category Archives: Beyond Categorization

Thangst

It’s hard to look at.

The ache. The mistake. The longing. The breakup. The failure. The betrayal. The abandonment. The affair. The loss.

The sin.

When you sit down at your desk to write, it clears its throat. It’s hiding behind your lamp or tucked under an unpaid utility bill. It’s watching, waiting. It nods “go ahead.” It whispers “it will be okay.”

Instead, you turn away. You look down at your computer keyboard. You rest your fingers there.

ae ess dee eff, jay kay elle sem

You’ve done your research. You’ve read all the how-to books. You loved Stephen King’s On Writing and Betsy Lerner’s The Forest for the Trees. You’re a good writer. A damn good writer. And you’re writing a damn good novel.

Your plot is just one revision away from brilliant. You know how to build tension, how to raise the stakes. Your characters are smart. Funny. Interesting. Diverse. Believable.

But something still isn’t right.

There’s a layer missing.

You lift your fingers from the keys. You lean back in your chair. You stare out the window. You listen to an approaching siren. You sniff the air for the smell of smoke. You wonder about the neighbors – the ones with the new fireplace insert. They asked you how you liked yours. You told them it was great, “flick a switch, instant romance.” She said they’d have to get one. He said he’d install it himself.

The siren passes and fades.

Your fingers hover above the keys. You can feel the pulse in your neck. Your son will be home from school in an hour.

It clears its throat again.

The ache. The mistake. The longing. The breakup. The failure. The betrayal. The abandonment. The affair. The loss. The sin.

No.

Your ache. Your mistake. Your longing. Your breakup. Your failure. Your betrayal. Your abandonment. Your affair. Your loss.

Your sin.

The missing layer.

You move the unpaid utility bill. You adjust the lamp. You inhale. You feel your heart beating in your chest.

You realize you’re holding your breath.

You exhale.

ae ess dee eff, jay kay elle sem

This is going to hurt.

Thanks.

Sticks and Stones and Words

Thick skin.

That’s what they say you have to have if you’re going to be a writer. Because someday someone will skewer your novel. Not may skewer it. But will.

It’s a given. A law. A little like Murphy’s law. A lot like the law of gravity.

Someone is going to hate your book. Really, truly despise it.

This will inevitably make you want to do one of the following:

a. Dig a hole. Climb into it. Stay there.

b. Push the writer of that review out of a helicopter without a parachute because anyone who can’t see the subtle brilliance of your prose needs to learn a lesson about great writing and what better way to prove your point than to reenact a scene from Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons.*

c. Hack into Amazon.com so you can replace the offending review with one your mother wrote in the family Christmas letter 27 years ago about the ashtray you made for her in kindergarten. “It was wonderful! Amazing! Made me want to take up smoking!”

But, as the theory goes, if you have a “thick skin,” the review won’t bother you at all. As you read how your protagonist “wouldn’t even be believable playing a stiff on a soap opera” and that your plot “drags more than J. Edgar Hoover” you’ll simply smile while the scent of lavender fills your nostrils and images of puppies and kittens frolicking in a field of poppies fill your mind.

There’s only one problem with this “thick skin” theory. It’s bullshit.

If someone calls you ugly, it hurts. Even though we both know you’re totally not ugly at all. In fact you’re quite good looking. Especially today. Did you get a haircut? It really suits you.

It’s no secret that we all want to be liked. Apparently, this is some absolute truth of the human condition. And what is your novel? It’s you. Pieces of you at the very least, and all of you if it’s your first novel. (Yes, we all know Ex Plus One Equals Love is actually a thinly disguised memoir chronicling that fifth year you spent in high school when you fell in love with your algebra teacher.)

So when someone says your novel sucks, it elicits the same response as if someone called you ugly. (No, you’re still not ugly. We already went over this. You’re cute and/or handsome and seriously sexy.) Thick skin is a myth writers made up because they desperately want it to be true. “All I have to do is wear the Thick Skin of Protection +4, and I will feel no pain.”

It doesn’t work that way. But…that’s okay.

Pain is good. Even the pain that comes from being lambasted by a clueless critic who wouldn’t know Wouk from a wok. It tells you you’re alive. And it also tells you something else, something critically important for a writer – it tells you that you care about your work. Yes! You. Care. About. Your. Work.

Forget trying to grow thick skin. Besides, you’d have to buy a whole new wardrobe. In a larger size. And don’t swing to the other side of the pendulum and complain about how thin your skin is. That just sounds like whining.

Write your book. Invest yourself in it. Do the best you can. And when someone says “your book is ugly,” go ahead and wince. Or scream. Or cry.

Then write another book. Not to prove that naysayer wrong. But because you wear the skin of a writer.

And that’s what writers do.

*I may not have remembered that right. I read Angels and Demons when I was suffering from both a deep depression and a nasty flu. Everything I read during that time was seen through a filter of Ache and Puke. I think that’s also the name of a book by Chuck Palahniuk. But I could be wrong about that, too.

Things I’ve Said on Twitter

This is a totally lame excuse for a post. It’s just a bunch of stuff I’ve tweeted over the past couple of months. Some of you have already been subjected to this madness and would rather be pecked to death by a sparrow than read it again. This isn’t for you. This is for those of you who don’t tweet…or who were too distracted by tweets about Justin Bieber to notice mine.

Many of these have something to do with writing. The rest have more to do with my personal psychoses. Feel free to offer your diagnosis in the comments.

While you amuse yourselves with this, I’ll go write a real post.

*Note of warning to those of you with severe OCD: These tweets are almost all in chronological order (from most recent to…not so recent). Did you notice that word “almost”? Yup. I did this to mess with your head.

Twitter recap 1
Twitter recap 2
Twitter recap 3
Twitter recap 4
Twitter recap 5

That should do it for today. Now you know what it’s like to be waterboarded. Thing is, I’ve got pages and pages of this crap. So you’ll probably see a few more pages the next time I pretend to care about how often I blog.

Now, back to that post I was writing. It’s about wasting readers’ time with filler.

No, it’s not. But wouldn’t that be clever and ironic?

Trails for Rabbits and Writers. And Rabbits.

Struggling with your current work in progress? Good for you. I mean, it’s lovely and wonderful and all when the story just flows like gravy over the Spoon Ridge Mountains of your mashed potatoes, but if you ask me, struggle is a good thing.

You’re somewhere in the middle of your book, aren’t you. And you’re totally frustrated. And ready to quit. Actually, yes, I am psychic. You’re also not eating enough vegetables and you need to call your mother and the world is going to end in 2012.

But before you grab and drop your messterpiece in the virtual trash, read the rest of this blog post. Your novel may yet be salvageable.

I said may be salvageable. Because let’s face it, sometimes the whole project does belong in the trash. But usually, it’s just a few pages here and there that deserve such fate.

This is where I must pause and offer a moment of reverent silence for the Days of Typewriters and Correction Fluid. In those days (yes, I actually am old enough to remember those days, the proof of which can be found in my so-mild-it’s-almost-precious brain damage, an unavoidable result of inhaling the literary scent of a generation: Liquid Paper), there was only so much you could fix on a page before it started to look like a cheap hooker in bad Kabuki makeup. That’s when you would practice the time-honored rip, crumple and toss that reminded you in multi-sensory fashion just what a horrible writer you were. At least on that particular page. Sometimes, the joy of actually making a three-point shot in your wastebasket would cheer you up enough to return to your novel in progress with renewed vim and vigor. But probably just vigor. Vim doesn’t get out much. Same with flotsam and jetsam. Flotsam gets lots of solo dates. Jetsam? Nope.

Today, it’s too easy. Bad writing doesn’t engage enough of our senses. It’s just “click, drag, pop” accompanied by wind chimes and the chirping of happy sparrows. There’s no satisfying machine-gun gear-grind inevitably followed by a pained groan from a spouse or co-worker who respects machines far more than humans and considers the removal of a sheet of paper from typewriter by anything other than gentle spinning of the platen wheel a mortal sin.

I know, you young folks are all “what? Platen wheel? What?” Google it. Wait, no, don’t Google it. Go to the library and check out a book called an “encyclopedia.” It’s sort of like Google, except it’s better at pressing flowers.

While you’re at the library, go to the fiction section. Grab the dustiest hardcover you can find and remove it from the shelf. Open to somewhere in the middle. Read a paragraph or two. Then find a comfy chair and keep reading. When the librarian taps you on the shoulder and says “we’re closing in ten minutes,” do a quick inventory of the past few hours. Were you drawn inexorably into the story? Or did you fall asleep? If the former, use this as motivation to get back to your own novel in progress. Because, let’s face it, the writer of the dusty library book struggled as much as you did with the middle. She just kept at it, you know? Maybe she took a break and made a BLT, only without lettuce and tomatoes since she really only likes BLTs for the bacon, and this inspired a brilliant idea that the protagonist could be allergic to wheat bread which would then solve her problem of a stalled plot because he just got a job in a bakery. Or maybe she printed out the offending pages, crumpled them up one at a time and played wasteketball until she felt so guilty about her growing carbon footprint that she vowed never to buy bottled water again, which gave her the brilliant idea of making her protagonist a quirky environmentalist because that would create palpable tension between him and his Hummer-driving love interest. Or maybe she went to the library and pulled out a dusty book and sat in a comfy chair and fell asleep because it was really horribly boring.

And when she awoke, she felt just what you did moments ago when the librarian tapped you out of your slumber, an electric surge of superiority all writers politely deny in public but crave in secret that goes by the name: “I can write better than that hack.” And as you brushed away fading dreams of secret library rendezvous and monkeys with typewriters and correction fluid in a spray can that works on annoying people, you realized you can do this.

You can fix the middle. Because you’re a damn good writer. Better than that loser who put you to sleep, anyway.

So go do it. Crumple up a few pages and write some new ones.

But first you should probably make a BLT.

Just in case.

The end. Yup. Really. Feel free to dig for hidden wisdom in this post.

* * *

You may be wondering why I don’t post more often. Why don’t you tell me? Choose from the following, or make up your own answer.

  1. Because I’m lazy.
  2. Because I can’t write until the muse shows up and she’s lazy.
  3. Because I like being contrary and infrequent blogging is exactly the sort of thing blogging experts tell you not to do.
  4. Because more often than not I don’t have anything new to add to the conversation and I have little interest in saying the same old thing in the same old way. Besides, you can get that elsewhere.
  5. Because I’m sending a coded message to rebel authors who are preparing a literary coup of the current publishing regime. (Count the number of days between posts. Assign a letter of the alphabet to each of those numbers. Re-arrange the letters until they make sense, in a “literary coup” sorta way. Follow the instructions carefully.)

From the Office of Admissions

Let’s not call them confessions, okay? Because that reeks of guilt. And for many of the following, I feel no guilt whatsoever.

I admit…

  • I am immediately turned off by best-selling books because I hold fast to an erroneous belief that for something to be popular, it must cater to the lowest common denominator and I prefer to believe I am far above that line.
  • I am not above that line.
  • I pick up a book based on its cover and only rule out a possible purchase if the blurb on the back bores me to tears. Otherwise, I’ll buy it and give the author every opportunity to surprise me.
  • I read more “debut” novels than any other category and am frequently pleasantly surprised.
  • I believe the sophomore slump for writers is usually more about lack of time to write than lack of talent.
  • I believe some writers only have one good book in them.
  • Great writing intimidates me to the point of wanting to give up.
  • Great writing inspires me to superglue my ass to the chair and write until I get it right.
  • I’m constantly conflicted by great writing. And I spend way too much money on superglue.
  • If people ask me what my favorite book is, I tell them “Tender Is the Night” when I want to sound smart and well-read, or “Go, Dog. Go!” if I just want them to stop asking me questions.
  • I haven’t read Anna Karenina, War & Peace, The Brothers Karamazov or anything by Danielle Steel.
  • I have at least 15 books sitting around my apartment (or on the back seat of my car) that I recently purchased and haven’t yet read. I will buy at least 15 more books before I’ve read half of the ones I already own.
  • I am infinitely more bothered by poor characterization or lazy plotting than misspellings or other typos.
  • I am quick to fall in love with a writer whose book makes me remember what it’s like to feel the deepest feelings of longing and loss. Then I stalk her with charming and clever emails. When presented with a restraining order, I am initially disappointed to discover that the language in the restraining order is boilerplate and not from the writer’s pen. At first, this hurts. But then I realize she is only choosing this approach because she knows the distance it creates between us will inevitably cause me to remember what it’s like to feel the deepest feelings of longing and loss. She is so clever. I love her.
  • Sometimes I believe it when people refer to me as “brilliant.”
  • Not really.
  • I love my job, even though it occupies my brain 24/7.
  • I have no idea what I’m doing 23/7.
  • The best measure I have of whether or not my novel-in-progress is any good comes when I go back to re-read an old section and find myself wondering who’s been tampering with my file and re-writing all the crap so it’s actually entertaining and witty.
  • I suffer from low self-esteem.
  • I love everybody.
  • Except when I hate everyone.
  • I labor over every Tweet, every e-mail, and every blog post (except maybe this one).
  • When I write a short story, I don’t always know where it’s going. This, despite the fact that I usually write the last sentence first.
  • I am pretty sure John Irving does this, too.
  • I would never compare myself to John Irving.
  • Unless he tends to fall in love with writers who make him feel the deepest feelings of longing and loss and subsequently stalks them. Then we might have something in common.
  • Unlike how I write my stories, I didn’t start with the last line of this blog post and therefore I have no idea how I’m going to end it.
  • Or do I?