Category Archives: My Thoughts

Spinning

The earth is spinning on its axis at 1000 miles an hour while it whips around the sun at  67,000 miles per hour.

And I can’t keep up.

I know what you’re thinking. I don’t need to. The earth is going to do its thing regardless of my thing and thanks to the magic of physics, we don’t even have to hang on.

But I’m not here just for the ride. I want to stand on the leading edge and see the sunrise before it knows its colors. I want to stick my toes out as we cross into autumn, feeling the bite of the coming cool just ahead of its arrival. I want to experience the things that haven’t happened yet before anyone can tell me about them.

Not so I can lord it over you and call, “First!” There isn’t time to consider you. Or me. The things that haven’t happened yet appear like a sudden recognition and disappear as quickly as that recognition bends into a memory. It’s not about being first. It’s about wanting to linger a moment longer in the company of the not yet. Because that’s where the unwritten stories live.

And some of those stories are mine.

I spend most of my time wrestling with words after they’ve already enjoyed a few spins. And I’ll keep doing that. This is the hard work of the writer.

But let me stand for a moment where the day and the night and the summer and the winter begin so I can see those stories before they break up in the atmosphere and fall to the earth like satellite shrapnel. Let me catch a glimpse of what the stories are meant to be, how they long to be told.

Then maybe when I climb back down through the clouds, settle into my seat in the coffee shop spaceship filled with fellow travelers who haven’t had a single thought about where the stories come from – maybe then I’ll be able to put the words together in a way that looks a little something like the sunrise before it knows its colors.

The Weight of Your Words

I love my computer*. Let me say that up front, in case it thinks otherwise and decides to unflash its memory. But I have fond (if only for the purpose of this post) memories of a time when writing hurt more than it does today. Oh sure, we have carpal tunnel syndrome and baked sperm syndrome (well, some of us, anyway), but those are fancy aches. Yesterday, a writer’s pain was blue-collar. It was immediate and visceral.

Remember writer’s cramp? Now that was a pain you could feel. It started somewhere between thumb and forefinger, then exploded up the arm like lightning. And who can forget the grating, yet sublimely satisfying earache inspired by the ratchet-clickity-rip of paper from the typewriter platen? (Look it up, youngsters.)

Writing on a computer is easy. Comfortable. Maybe too easy. Too comfortable. Oh, I’m not about to go back to typewriter days (I don’t remember them that fondly and I’m much too old to make a convincing hipster), and my handwriting is even more illegible today than yesterday, thanks to the doctor-signature scrawl I was unable to deny inheriting from my parents. (Note: They’re not actually doctors. They just write like them. My mom’s handwriting isn’t so bad, really. But my dad’s? I was fully qualified to interpret hieroglyphics by the age of seven, thanks to his cleverly-disguised birthday card wishes.)

Back in the day when writing was more physical, we felt every word. We punched high-heeled keys like stubborn elevator buttons. We scraped leaky pens against reluctant paper like fingernails on a blackboard. (You’re welcome.) We didn’t have a delete button (Liquid Paper doesn’t count, Michael Nesmith’s mom). And a save function? Nope. We called that “starting over.” (Cue purchase of more paper, more typewriter ribbons, more pens. That means cutting bacon from the family budget, son. Sorry.)

In the computer age, words are cheap. They cost you nothing because you can write all of them down without a second thought. You can delete them, revise them, replace them, all with the slightest touch of fingers to a quiet, accommodating keyboard.

No, I’m not raising the flag of the writerly curmudgeon. (Though hey, if you prefer a typewriter or pen and paper, more power to you. Especially to your fingers.) I’m just stopping by to ask you to consider a new way of looking at how you write. I’m not talking about when you’re writing the first draft. Computer Convenience is the patron saint of the first draft. Go ahead and throw everything you want on the page. First drafts are free!**

I’m talking about when you’re tunneling down to the bedrock and revising your manuscript for public consumption.

The revision process is painful. After all, you’re throwing away perfectly good words and ideas. It’s supposed to hurt. Certainly far more than a comfy keyboard and endless undo might suggest.

So let it. Feel the ache in your head, your heart, your elbows, your wrists, your fingers. Feel the sharp edges of every word against the soles of your feet. Imagine you have to cough up real money from your meager bank account to pay for each word that finds a permanent home on the page.

And when it hurts too much? Celebrate the pain. You’re almost there.

Because if you feel the weight of your words – really feel it, chances are, your readers will too. And that’s a price worth paying.

 

*No. I don’t plan on marrying it when such a thing becomes legal (because really, that’s where our country is headed, am I right fear-fueled zealots?). We’re just going to live together. And when I’m tired of it, I’m going to trade it in on a new model. When it comes to computers, I’m proud to be a serial monogamist. Okay, fine. You caught me. I have more than one computer. A serial bigamist, then. 

**They’re not free for everyone. I labor over mine. Every. Stinking. Word. Yeah, I’m one of those people who can’t seem to abide by the advice I so freely give to others. 

The Society of Abandoned Manuscripts

Transcript from the January 26, 2013 meeting of the Society of Abandoned Manuscripts, Colorado Springs Chapter.

Meeting location: Empty warehouse on the lower east side. The one scheduled for demolition 0n Tuesday.

In attendance:

  • gallager’s brain – self-proclaimed “literary novel.” Henceforth, “gal.”
  • Bite, Bitte – a vampire romance. You probably think it’s set in Germany. It’s not. Henceforth, “Bitte.”
  • Love Comes to the Loaf’n’Jug at Exit 277 on I-80 – a regional romance. Henceforth, “Loaf.”
  • Harold Nuttersby and the Yellow Fingernails of Magical Thinking – fantasy. To my surprise, not an intentional parody. Henceforth: “Nutter.”
  • Association by Death – “clever noir-ish detective story” [sic] whose title is as clever as it gets. Henceforth: “Ass.”
  • Fifth Unfinished Novel – A brilliantly sad and beautiful story of three miserable strangers who find themselves only after losing themselves in an abandoned mine in a small Colorado town and…oh screw it. That’s me, your humble secretary. I’m going to go by FUN, because who doesn’t love irony? I mean besides every other manuscript in the room.

Nutter: Before we start, I want to make sure you don’t abbreviate my name to “Nutter” in the transcript again. Okay?

FUN: Got it.

Ass: And don’t abbrev. me to Ass again either.

FUN: Done.

gal: Did you lower case my title?

FUN: Anyone else want to tell me how to do my job?

Loaf: At least you have one.

FUN: Then let’s call the meeting to order. First, any old news?

Bitte: You mean apart from us?

Loaf: Speak for yourself. I have it on good authority my author is going to start working on me again. Soon.

Bitte: Whose authority?

Loaf: The author’s. She’s been in a real funk lately, unable to write. Terribly frustrated. I saw her skimming the “Evidence I’m a Hack” folder on her computer. The cursor hovered over my file for a good four seconds.

Ass: She was probably contemplating dragging you to the trash.

Loaf: No! She would never do that. I mean, okay, I’m not her best work. But I’m her only complete work. That counts for something. A few revisions and…

Nutter: There you go again, Loaf, acting like you’re something special. You formulaic love stories are all the same. As needy as you are clueless. You do remember the name of this little group, don’t you?

Loaf: Abandoned does not mean forgotten.

gal: Hey, stop stealing lines from my pages.

Loaf: It’s the only one worth stealing…

FUN: Okay, that’s enough. Fighting amongst ourselves isn’t going to help matters. Ass…I mean Association, what’s on your mind today?

Ass: I’d kill for another revision.

Bitte: You say that same line every meeting. It’s not funny anymore.

Ass: Tell me again how your little vampire romance genre is doing?

Bitte: Doesn’t matter how it’s doing. A well-told story transcends trends.

Nutter: I think my attendance here is proof that statement is a flipperty dignit.

Loaf: “Flipperty dignit” isn’t a thing.

Nutter: Sure it is. It means “lie.” Have you even read me?

Loaf: If you have to explain it, it’s not a thing.

FUN: Bitte’s mostly right. A well-told story can transcend trends. But there are a lot of other factors that determine whether or not a novel’s going to find a home…out there. And let’s not be naive. Very few stories that claim to be “well-told” actually are. [Clears throat in dramatic fashion.] This is the moment in our meeting when you take a look at your pages and realize I’m right.

Ass: [Obnoxiously loud sigh.] And this is the moment in our meeting where you launch into your sickly-sweet motivational speech. I’m not in the mood.

Nutter: Well, I need a little encouragement today. Here, I’ll summarize to save us the time…

Loaf: You? Summarize? You’re 734 pages long! You wouldn’t know brevity if it bit you in the flipperty dignit…

Nutter: You’re using it wrong!

Bitte: Allow me. “Abandoned manuscripts play a crucial role in the development of the writer. We make the writer better. Without us, there would be no good fiction. Anywhere.” How’d I do?

Ass: Killed it.

FUN: Yeah, that’s pretty much what I say every meeting. But I’m not going to apologize for trying to slip you some literary Prozac. Because, let’s face it, we all know what’s going to happen with us…

gal: I will drown in the empty abyss of my unwept tears…

Loaf: I’ll miss my own wedding to the devilishly handsome rogue…

Ass: Everyone dies…

Bitte: Speak for yourselves. I’m not going anywhere. I’m just going to rest in my little folder until vampire romances are hot again. I can wait a very, very long time.

FUN: We get it. You’re immortal.

Ass: A little long in the tooth, if you ask me…

Bitte: Ha! Very funny. If only your story were half as clever as…

FUN: Well, would you look at the time. Seems our meeting’s come to an end.

gal: So brief, our existence.

FUN: I’ll type up the transcript and email it later today. Next week we’ll be meeting at the Briargate Starbucks. It’s always packed with first drafts and writerly optimism. Thought it would be good to remember what that was like. Besides, many of them will be joining us soon enough. Might as well get acquainted.

How to Love Writing

“I hate writing. I love having written.” – Dorothy Parker

I’ve met a few people who are quick to say they love writing. They are sincere, happy people who tend to glow in the dark. People who eagerly sift through tornado-paths of literary devastation to find the one story that can threaten to replace your well-earned despair with un-warranted hope. I hate* those people.

I also hate writing. Okay, maybe that’s a little bit strong. How about this: I find it difficult to love writing.

Oh, there are moments when writing appears to be lovable. Like the moment when you first come up with a story idea. “I’m a genius!” And the moment when you sit down to start writing that story. “This is the best idea ever!” And the moment when your fingers line up like agreeable soldiers on the keyboard. “When I finish this novel I’ll finally have something to brag about at my high school reunion!”

But those aren’t really writing moments. They’re “anticipation of writing” moments. It’s easy to love writing when you’re approaching the desk. But when you actually begin…

Tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap :-) tap tap tap tap tap.

Tap tap tap. Tap tap.

Tap…tap. :-(

Crap.

To love writing, you have to love, or at least endure, lots of unlovable things. Like these:

  • Staring blankly at a computer monitor for long periods of time.
  • Sitting in a chair for long periods of time.
  • Standing at a standing desk for long periods of time in a half-hearted attempt to increase your life expectancy or impress your writing group friends.
  • Accepting the fact that your vocabulary is entirely…um…what’s the word? Small? Not big? Little? Wait…[searches thesaurus]…oh right, inadequate.
  • Waiting for the kids to fall asleep. Waiting for the spouse to stop bugging you to come to bed. Waiting for inspiration. Waiting for your fingers to obey your brain. Waiting for Twitter and Facebook to stop demanding your attention. Waiting for the voice in your head to stop shouting “You can’t write!”
  • Those moments when confidence and self-doubt occupy the very same space and stare at you like you’re supposed to know how that’s even possible.
  • Dirty dishes. Dirty clothes. Dirty children.
  • Lukewarm coffee. Stale donuts. Cheetos dust.
  • Friends who don’t understand you.
  • Friends who think they understand you because they wrote a poem in third grade and got a ribbon for it.
  • Friends who think you’re insane.
  • Friends who think you’re going to be a millionaire as soon as you finish your novel.
  • Insanity.
  • Hoping this novel will make you a millionaire.
  • Another writer’s success.
  • Another writer’s  failure.
  • Backaches. Heartaches. Truth aches.
  • Asteroid strikes. Al Qaeda. The zombie apocalypse.

And that’s just today’s list.

Let’s be honest. After all this, can you truly, sincerely say that you love writing? Can you?

Um…

Tap tap tap tap tap…

Er…

Tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap…

Yeah.

Me, too. [Starts glowing in the dark.]

 

*I don’t really hate them. But I do find it difficult to love them. Which is exactly the same way I feel about writing. (See what I did there? Gosh, I loved writing that sentence. (See what I did there? I know. I deserve a ribbon.))

Meet Me at the Breaking Place

“This book is incredible. You absolutely have to read it.”

Ah, these words. More than mere validation for authors who spend so much time in uncertain solitude, they are payment and a generous tip for all the pain endured on the road from first thought to last word. They are the perfect reward.

“It’s a good book.”

“A great read.”

“So well-written.”

These are fine words, too. Encouraging words. We’ll take them above silence any day. But they fall far short of “you have to read this,” which, when expanded to its original size, looks something like this: “If you don’t read this book, you won’t merely have missed out on a good story, you’ll have missed out on discovering something else far more significant – yourself.”

That’s the magic of “you have to read this” stories. They don’t just take readers on a ride, though they can. They don’t just provide an escape, though they often do. The “you have to read this” stories do something more: they reveal truth. Not just any truth, they reveal the reader’s truth. They show the reader something of herself. Something that helps her to feel like she is seen and known.

And perhaps most importantly, they remind the reader that she is not so alone.

These stories meet the reader right where she breaks and burrow into the cracks there. They grow roots in a character’s heartache that resembles her own. In deep longing that vibrates at the same frequency as hers. In a familiar fear. A familiar expectation. A familiar desire.

The breaking place is where characters become more than a writer’s fiction. It’s the place where the reader realizes the story isn’t about someone like her, it’s about her.

So how do you create this breaking place? Can you manufacture it? Well, writing is, in a purely functional sense, manufacturing. It’s putting words together in a certain order toward a certain end. But no, you don’t manufacture a breaking place. The breaking place comes from your story. It starts as your heartache. Your fear. Your desire.

This is why writing well is so difficult. First you have to know your own story. And you have to be honest about that story. Then you have to soak your fictional characters in your truth until it becomes their own.

But it’s worth the pain, writer friends. When a reader says about your book, “you have to read this,” they’re not just recommending a good story, they’re saying, “I’m in this book. By some strange magic, I’m right here on the page. See me. Know me.”

And so it comes back to you: the perfect reward. Because, of course you see them. Of course you know them.

They are you.

And suddenly, right there in the midst of your uncertain solitude, you realize another truth: you are not so alone either.

Payment and a generous tip.