Spin

There is a chair.

It sits on a line that runs north and south. It spins, but does not roll.

Turn and face east. You’ll see that you’re in a room. It isn’t a particularly well-lit room, despite the efforts you’ve made to keep it from looking like a dungeon. Let’s call it your office.

In front of you is a desk. No, make it a table you found at a garage sale. It’s okay that it doesn’t match the rest of the furniture in your office. It’s yours and that’s what matters. Besides, it’s not really an “office” office. It’s a corner of your living room. Or your unfinished basement.

Scattered across the table are papers and books and a red stapler and bendy metal things that used to have a name but you’ve forgotten what they’re called. That’s because you’re focused on the thing that occupies the center of the card table: your computer. I’m going to make it a desktop computer, but you can picture your laptop if you want. In one corner of the screen is your novel-in-progress, but most of the real estate is filled with your web browser. There are at least a half dozen tabs open right now. One goes to Nathan Bransford’s blog. Another to Chip MacGregor’s site. And still another to Rants & Ramblings. There’s the Pandora link, of course. And one for MSNBC.com. You’re slightly embarrassed to admit that one takes you to Thesaurus.com. And slightly less embarrassed to admit one leads to TheBloggess. (Jenny makes you laugh. That’s okay. She makes me laugh, too.)

Take a look at the stack of books next to your computer. Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Stephen King’s On Writing. And a few novels you’ve started reading but haven’t finished yet. (Yes, I see that like-new copy of War and Peace you bought five years ago. Makes a great bookend.)

Paperclips!

Yes, that’s what the bendy metal things are called. You feel damn good about yourself for remembering that, don’t you. Go ahead. Embrace this moment of successful recollection. Celebrate it. The room needs a little more cheer. Especially after reading that blogpost on the state of publishing and those two “pass” letters.

Bow down to me, paperclips, for I am your master!

Okay, let’s not overdo it. See that empty notebook? Grab it and a couple of pencils. Or pens, I don’t care. (But good luck finding one that works in that pick-up-sticks mess-of-miscellaneous bin.)

Now spin 180 degrees. Face west.

You’re not in your office anymore.

You’re on a grassy hill, watching two lovers say goodbye under a weeping willow. You’re hiding in a bunker, deafened by the sounds of war and trying not to retch from the smell of death. You’re huddled in a damp corner of a tiny room with a girl who can’t be more than five, watching as she methodically pulls the stuffing out of her well-loved bear, listening as she mimics angry words that have painted bruises on her skin and in her heart.

This is the place where stories live.

Yours is here somewhere. Follow a path or a parade or a rabbit or a trail of crumbs until you find it. When you do, step right smack dab into the middle of it. Listen. Watch. Smell. Touch. Test your own voice to learn its echo.

Then get out your notebook and write. Keep writing until you can write no more. Until your notebook is full. Or your pencils are stubs. Or your pens run out of ink. (Told you.) Or maybe until you’re so saturated with the truth that holds the story together you can’t take any more.

Go back to your chair and sit down. Take a deep breath.

Then spin.

Set your notebook on the desk. Sigh if you must. (You must.) Your office isn’t as much fun as the place where stories live. Words like “query” and “agent” and “rejection” and “revision” reside here, hovering like dark clouds above your computer. Sometimes they yell so loud at you they wake your napping children.

It’s not the prettiest place in the world, but it’s your place. Your office. And it’s the place where you piece together your publishing dreams.

Sigh.

Why, yes, I do know what you want to do right now. You want to spin again. Of course you do. But hold on just a second, okay? Take another look around your office. Notice anything different?

It’s brighter, isn’t it. The clouds above your computer aren’t so gray. The stack of books doesn’t look so menacing. The red stapler is practically orange. I’ll bet you know exactly where the light is coming from.

Yep. Your notebook. Your story.

Maybe you can work on that proposal today after all. You might want to organize all those notes first. You could use a…

Paperclip!

Yes, a paperclip.

You are brilliant.

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.)

The Blinking* Cursor

You know how it goes. You follow your inspired muse to the page and start writing and everything’s going great, then 1000 words in, you hit a wall. A big fat concrete wall with barbed wire strung across the top. Maybe the wall is a plot hole. Maybe it’s a character who is suddenly acting out of character. Or maybe you’re just really, really tired because you stayed up all night reading Anna Karenina so you can honestly say “Yes, I’ve read Anna Karenina” should anyone in your writers’ group ask if you’ve read Anna Karenina because that’s the sort of thing you imagine writers in writers’ groups ask whenever there is a lull in the conversation and you’re certainly expecting lulls at the next meeting because you’ve been asked to read an excerpt from your incredibly boring work in progress.

So what do you do when you hit a wall? Well, the best advice I’ve ever heard is this: change your environment. Get up out of your chair. Run the washing machine again since you forgot to put the washed load in the dryer last night (blame Anna) and the laundry is smelling more like Mountain Man than Mountain Spring. Pick up a book and read a chapter. Walk the dog. Walk the ferret. Walk the goldfish. Re-introduce yourself to your children. Pick lint off your significant other’s sweater. Knit a sweater. Go for a run. Call your mother. Kiss your spouse. Kiss your neighbor. Chase a rabbit. Eat a cookie.

Just do something other than stare at the blinking cursor.

This is excellent advice. Yes, there are some writers who can bore a hole through any writing wall with sheer determination (usually prompted by a looming deadline of “yesterday”). But most of us aren’t Cylopsian like that and we hate those people anyway so instead we must get up out of the chair.

I don’t know the science behind it, but apparently when we walk away and do something totally unrelated to the problem at hand, the brain feels emotionally secure enough to back up and re-consider the problem from a different perspective. (This is sort of like what happens when you’re trying to remember the name of that movie – you know, the one with that actor who did that other movie with that actress – and you can’t for the life of you remember it no matter how squinty your eyes or how furrowed your brow, but then it comes to you three days later during the silent prayer time at church and you’re so excited that you accidentally blurt “What Dreams May Come!” really loud and a split-second later as you re-play your prayerful exclamation you realize you might have pronounced “What” as “Wet” and no wonder people don’t invite you over for dinner after church.)

I run into walls a lot. (Insert Toyota joke here.) Want to know how I deal with walls? Do I flip down my Scott Summers sunglasses and burn a hole through the concrete? Nope. So that must mean I get out of my chair and do something else, right? Um…no.

I stare at the blinking* cursor.

I might still try to write, but it only takes a few keystrokes to discover that I’m facing one of those Escape from New York walls you can’t get over without Snake Plissken’s help and Snake’s retired, so good luck with that.

So instead? I just stare at that blinking* cursor.

Three hours later, I get up out of my chair and declare myself a complete failure as a writer, having added nothing to my novel except an impenetrable obstacle that fittingly resembles a very wide, very tall tombstone.

Here is where I’m supposed to spin this unflattering picture of the writer’s life into some kind of inspirational lesson. Um. Nope. Can’t do it.

Because sometimes writing is impossible. Sometimes trying to put a word on the page is like trying to staple a wasp to a jackrabbit. And sometimes, you waste hours of your life staring at a blinking* cursor.

I’m sorry smelly laundry. I’m sorry obese ferret. I’m sorry neighbor who looks exactly like Kate Beckinsale**. I suck.

What can I say? I’m a writer.

*Please feel free to replace the asterisked instances of “blinking” with your favorite swear word. I did.

**No, I don’t have a neighbor who looks exactly like Kate Beckinsale. But this is my blog and my daydream so I can pretend whatever I want. Like right now? I’m pretending that Kate Beckinsale’s people will happen upon this post during routine “checking for unflattering web content” Googling and decide it would be great PR if she were to suddenly show up in Colorado and invite me out to dinner where I’d be happy just to listen to her talk in that sexy English accent even with her mouth full of P.F. Changs’ Oolong Marinated Sea Bass.

7 Writing Myths I Just Made Up So I Could Debunk Them

Yes, there are lots of actual writing and publishing myths out there worthy of review. But everyone else writes about those. Surely you’ve stumbled across a post or two debunking such common myths as “literary agents are out to kill your writing dreams” and “first-time novelists don’t have a chance in hell of getting published.”

You don’t need yet another post about those myths, do you? No, you don’t. What you do need is this post in which I make up some writing and publishing myths of my own. Just so I can debunk them.

Isn’t this more fun anyway?

Oh, and I might have tried to stuff some actual helpful advice in this nonsense. I say this only because if you learn something, I want it to seem like I planned that all along.

The Myth: If you misuse “its” and “it’s” in your manuscript, you’re screwed. No one will represent you. Not even really bad agents.

The Debunking: While it’s true that agents tend to prefer writers who know basic grammar skills, a beautifully-told tale with a compelling author voice and commercial potential is usually enough to make them forget the fact that you can’t spell “pulchritude.”

The Myth: If you pitch an agent the same book more than once with the argument “I fixed all the stuff that was wrong last time,” they’ll put a curse on you and you’ll never get published.

The Debunking: Not true. You’ll probably need to look for a different agent, but just because the one you’ve been annoying isn’t interested in your much-improved novel doesn’t mean it’s unpublishable. And while it is technically true that some agents still place curses on writers, most these days merely block your email address.

The Myth: There is a higher incidence of liver failure in writers.

The Debunking: Actually, this one is true.

The Myth: If your novel includes vampires, portals or sullen teenagers who’ve recently lost a parent and are having a hard time coping and so they turn to drugs or cutting or sleeping around until one day they are awakened by the epiphany that “life is hard – just deal with it,” agents will draw a big red “x” across your manuscript (virtually, of course, because a Sharpie would really screw up their computer monitor) and reject your proposal out of hand.

The Debunking: If you’ve found a unique way to write about vampires or portals or sullen teenagers, you might just get representation. Here’s the deal: while it’s stupid and naive to follow trends in order to get a publishing deal, if you tell a good story that just so happens to also be a trending topic or theme, you’ll still have a shot at being noticed.

The Myth: All first novels are essentially autobiographical.

The Debunking: Well, that would explain why Stephen King is so creepy. But, no. Not all. Just most.

The Myth: If you write with a pen and legal pad instead of on a computer, every article about you will refer to this behavior in a way that makes you look like a self-important jerk.

The Debunking: Nope. But if you write with a pen and legal pad instead of on a computer and you make a point to tell everyone you meet that this is the way real writers write, then every article about you will (quite rightly) refer to this behavior in a way that make you look like a self-important jerk.

The Myth: Only crappy books are getting published and that’s why your book hasn’t been snatched up by an agent yet.

The Debunking: Both crappy books and great books are being published and the jury is still out as to which category yours falls under.

There you go.

You’re welcome.

Have a nice day.