Tuesday September 5, 2017
So, as of this moment, I have at least a dozen first drafts up in the air. One of which has been tinkered with for a couple of weeks. It’s the latest, and the last project I’m taking on this year. Once this one is out of the way, then I’ll be working backwards through the projects started and never finished.
This last one, the one I’m working on now, this line in the sand, this is the hill that I will die upon before I stick my flag into the soil that reads, “I WILL FINISH A GODDAMNED PROJECT THIS YEAR IF IT KILLS ME”. This one started as they always do; Flash Fiction.
I’m beginning to think that Flash Fiction is like yeast. It’s small, inert and harmless at first, but given time and the right ingredients, and you can watch that sucker consume the container you put it in. Which is always fun. RAAWRR! FEAR MY SOURDOUGHNESS! I WILL EAT YOUR KITCHEN!
I start out with my sites set to finish a project within 1000 words. It never works. Never. I’m sure with time and…what’s that word?…discipline! Yeah, that’s it. I’m sure with enough discipline I could cut my stories down with laser precision to the point that they could almost be mistaken for Haiku.
I’m also sure that with the right application, I could raise an entire SOURDOUGH ARMY TO TAKE OVER THE TRI-STATE AREA!!!
I just want to point out, just in case I haven’t made it clear before, that I sort of fell into writing. It wasn’t my first choice, but it was in my top five and I might have made a grave mistake in not acting upon it sooner in life. I didn’t go to school for it. I didn’t grow up sitting for endless hours in a starkly furnished and dimly lit room in front of an ancient typewriter thinking, “Someday, man… someday…”. Which isn’t to say that I find the act of writing dull or cumbersome, nor do I think my fondness for the craft will make me an overnight sensation. I like writing. I’m comfortable with it. It’s something that I actually like doing. It allows me to be useful and functional member of society while trying to cope with an undiagnosed personality disorder. You know the one? The one that sticks its ugly head out every time I have to deal with engaging people? The one that cost me relationships and employment? Yeah, that one. Writing has allowed me to cope, to make sense of things, to be the person I thought I never could be. I just wanted to point this out, because I know there might be a few of you who feel the same way about writing or whatever craft or occupation you found yourself in.
I also wanted to point this out because I’m trying to keep my mind off a Category 5 Hurricane that has just developed near the east coast of Puerto Rico and heading for Florida.
She’s big and mean and I’m sick of being hurricane bait. I grew up in the Northeast. Childhood was filled with shoveling a lot of driveways, something I hated. Now with Irma tracked to take a big old dump on my front lawn in a few days, I’m beginning to get downright nostalgic for a good old fashioned snow storm and the feel of a sturdy shovel in mittened hands. It’s a lot easier to shovel snow than replace windows.
A Category 5.
A goddamned FIVE!
Any higher, and they’d have to add tornadoes made stuffed with sharks and barbed wire stuffed inside of a larger tornado stuffed inside a hurricane.
Yes, I know that she’s still in the ocean and she’ll lose steam once she hits the Caribbean. It still doesn’t make me thankful that she’ll be downgraded to a Category 4. Harvey was a 4. Matthew was a 4. Katrina was only a 3, and look at the mess she made there. Irma will be a solid 5 for the foreseeable future. I don’t think there’s any room for a ‘count your blessings’ homily here. She is coming and she will mess your shit up, and she will laugh in your face while doing it. She is the honey badger of storms. She does not give a shit. If she does make landfall as a 4, when she blows your house down, I don’t think the first words out of your mouth will be, “Hey, look at the bright side, at least it wasn’t a Category 5.”
Anyway, it’s times like these that I try to put myself into the mindset of an Syrian war correspondent. Or closer to the topic, meteorologists who risk their necks walking outside in the middle of a hurricane. I try to think of all these western journalists who have to wear a special color helmet and a vest that says “PRESS” on both sides or blue slickers that are basically and afterthought as everyone that wears it is still soaked to the bone. I try to think of the story they’re presenting while dealing with pressure they’re under from the bullets or funnel clouds in front of them, and the deadlines behind them.
Of course, these guys were made to thrive under pressure. These are the ones who are telling you things as they happen because they are important at that moment. What isn’t important at that moment while the world falls apart around them, is a well researched and well written thinkpiece a la Rachel Maddow. The viewer doesn’t need to know the intricate and labyrinthine details of what lead up to the point you’re talking about right now. It’s nice and it’s appreciated, but it can wait. What is important is that building that just exploded in front of you from mortar fire. That’s the story, in all its gory details. I don’t think there needs to be too much research for that.
Then again, they are reporting the news. Current events. Dangerous current events. It’s not as if they’re pulling out random thoughts and characters from thin air in some quiet and cozy nook with their Chamomile tea and a Macbook where they weave a 200 page narrative to be published at a later date. I’m not a pro or anything like that so don’t quote me, but I don’t think fiction story writing is the same thing as non-fiction story writing. I think I might have read that somewhere. Hemingway was a journalist at one time, and I’m sure he’s documented his fair share of horrors as they happened. I’m just not convinced he wrote The Sun Also Rises while staring down the barrel of a hurricane that was poised to uproot his house and chuck it into the Caribbean. Something, I think, he probably wouldn’t have been too displeased with.
And it’s not like I don’t have any regard for deadlines at all. I make them for myself on a regular basis. It’s just that other priorities always pile themselves in front of them. As a result, the house gets clean, the page is still blank. I miss my own deadlines.
There aren’t enough hours in the day. And spare me your wagging finger and your snooty tone. Some of us only have a few minutes a day to sit down and focus on something else that doesn’t involve changing a diaper or washing a dish. Some of us don’t have the luxury of unplugging completely. Some of us don’t have a tiny writing shack that we can hermit ourselves into somewhere in the mountains. Some of us are housewives looking for a better life. Some of us didn’t go to college to learn how to write professionally, it’s just something that happened along the way. Some of us simply fell into it.
This time, I’m closer than I have been to actually finishing something. I’m still at a snail’s pace, but at least I have recognized how I’m sabotaging myself. Not in ways that are completely obvious that haven’t been blogged about in a listicle several thousand times before. Blahblahblah too much internet. Blahblahblah turn off your devices. Yeah, I get that. I have plenty of other things that pry my attention away from the keyboard that aren’t digital. One of them runs around on chubby toddler legs screaming, “DADDY! PAW PATROL! DADDY! CHAWQUIK MIKK!”
Outside interferences aside, I have become hip to certain things I do to myself that hold me back long before I sit down to write. I don’t know if blogging about them would help me in any way, but dammit, something needs to go up like now-ish. Irma is coming. Look busy.
Step 1 in getting more disciplined is to recognize the pitfalls. Step 2 is working on fixing them. Here are a couple of big ones.
1. Too Much Focus On Word Counts
How long should your short story be? It depends on who you ask.
If you’re looking to have your short story published in a magazine, then it would be wise to tighten it up to less than 2000 words. If you’re looking to publish it in your own anthology at a later date, then go crazy, you crazy pumpkin-headed word monkey! Type like the wind! Just, try to keep them south of 7000 words (I know of someone who recently self published her own short story in digital format on Amazon that was around 6000 words).
I have literally spent hours studying this. Upon starting a new project, the thing that always comes first is the initial idea, natch. The second thing, for me, isn’t the genre, the subplots, the theme, how many characters I need. It’s not if and when the Fearsome Sourdough Army will rise up and take over. It’s not the plot synopsis or the elevator pitch, it’s the length. How long should it be? It’s a genuine concern for me because I feel it’s important to know where my limitations are before I start, and because well…it’s a length thing. Because some guys worry that…theirs…aren’t long enough… and it won’t measure up… and they’ll get laughed at, and won’t be invited back to any pool parties.
My goal this year is to write at least one short story, but how short does it have to be to still be considered short? Some will say 2000 words will suffice. But to me, that’s still the outskirts of Flash Fiction territory, and I get concerned that it’ll be too short for a good (or at least readable) story. Ten thousand, and I’m reaching the sun drenched shores of Novella. It’s usually around this time that I start going down the rabbit hole of “Well, is it a novella? Sure you don’t want to make it just a little longer? You could try shooting for a smaller word count…I guess. It could be a short story if you destroy half of your plot. Maybe if you put a few more subplots in there, you could stretch it out to a novel.” I’ll keep talking to myself like this until I realize 3 hours of my life had gone by and my Scrivener document is still a glaring white landscape of blankness and failure.
I want to write a short story. How short is just right? How long is too long?
The honest answer, the answer no one else will tell you is…
…no one gives a shit.
I grew up the son of a carpenter. The need to measure twice and cut once bleeds into everything I do, and I need to learn to stop doing that. Learning how the pros do it helped put my mind at ease. I was too locked into the mindset that every completed project needs to be x amount of words long because if it were longer, I wouldn’t get published, and if I wouldn’t get published then my life will be over, and then Hurricane Irma will have my bones. Then the flooding…then the Sourdough Army…
If I were planning on getting published…I mean like, realistically planning. Like, I’d have a go-to editor in my contacts, I got an in with a publishing house and all the perks attached with it, then yes. Concerning myself with something as arbitrary as length shall be taken into consideration.
But the last time I checked, I’m nowhere near that benchmark. I can barely keep up with regular blog posts, so why am I worrying about a situation that hasn’t happened? Publishing is the end goal, but as of right now, as I’m still fighting like hell for every word and every minute of solitude for an opportunity to write them, it’s a lofty goal at best. Right now, it’s all about tinkering and experimentation. Right now, it’s all about learning the moves and getting them right. Right now, it’s all about making mistakes. Right now, it’s about having fun. Writing and storytelling was never meant to be a chore, Jeebus knows I have too many of those.
If your word count lands in the neighborhood of 5k, excellent. Double that? Even better. Wherever you end up, it doesn’t matter, just write the damn thing. Fix it later. Who cares what others think? You do you.
2. Have You Talked To Your Characters Lately?
How are you?
Have you been alright
Through all those lonely, lonely, lonely
That’s what I’d say.
But no one’s answering.
If you’d just SIT YOUR ASS DOWN AND WRITE!”*
*(apologies to Jeff Lynne)
This latest project is set in the future. It’s a riff on Ghost in the Shell.
The next one has to do with persecution in your homeland and seeking freedom in another.
The one after that, a good old fashioned good vs. evil yarn.
They all deal with different themes, but they all have one thing in common: Once a dialogue gets going between my main characters, it tends to die almost immediately.
…The story, not the characters.
I’m like George RR Martin, but instead of killing off beloved characters, I choke my plots in their sleep.
Narration is strong. Description is strong.
Dialogue? Well… for lack of a better term, it’s painful.
They tell you to pay attention to how people talk. Which is fine, I guess. Agonizing for introverts, but effective for others.
I spend my time focusing on what people are saying rather than how they’re saying it. Paying attention to the musicality of language could tend to be problematic. If you’re deciphering an accent, then you’re already stereotyping the person. My problem is that if I format dialogue this way, it sounds like I’m transcribing an eavesdropped conversation; lots of sound, little substance.
It’s awkward. I’m eavesdropping in on a conversation between two people in my head, and I still only get half of it. Awkward.
You’re writing your dialogue, but your not feeling it. It’s because you haven’t spent time with that character. You can describe the scene, you know where it is, what it smells like, what the temperature is. You have your backstory all worked out; Who met and fell in love, who betrayed whom and how long revenge has been planned. You can bulldoze your way through a few dozen pages of this, but when it comes down to talking, it sounds like two despondent and listless teeanagers circa 1985 discussing the itinerary for that day:
Wanna go to the mall?
Which is fine, if this is what you’re going for. All I’m saying, is that it looks a little weird if this is where you arrived while writing a period romance.
You need to spend time with that character. There is no other way around it. Believe me, I’ve tried. There are dozens of sites out there offering help with your manuscript specifically when it comes to helping in the development of your characters. My mistake is that I figure that my project isn’t that long, so therefore the time spent on character development shouldn’t be that important.
… flash forward a few dozen, half done, half baked, barely touched manuscripts later, and I’m scratching my head as to why.
Take the time. Talk to them. Get to know their likes, their dislikes, the little things. Yes, it’s time consuming. Yes, it feels like you have to break out your 20d dice and your number 2 pencils to level up your dexterity (go ask a Nerd). Sure, I guess it kinda sorta counts as talking with someone and so introverts might be a little more hesitant to do this (here’s a tip for all the hardcore hermits out there. It doesn’t count as talking to strangers if the stranger you’re talking to is you. Let that sink in).
Sure, you can work on emulating the real way that people talk with all the ambivalence, foibles and ums and uhs that come along with it. But, we can’t all the be the next Pinter. How boring would that be? Dialogue isn’t supposed to sound natural. Not completely, anyway. If you’re stuck with your story and it’s because of your dialogue, pull your character aside and take her out for coffee. Take the time to get to know them. I promise you a better result.
I started this on Tuesday. It is now Saturday afternoon. In this time, the Southern part of Florida has been mostly evacuated, Hurricane Irma has been downgraded slightly and is starting to list in a westerly direction (stay strong, Tampa). Our windows have been boarded up and we are ready to see this storm go away. The storm is leaning towards the Gulf of Mexico, so that means it’s becoming very unlikely that the eye of the storm will be over us…fingers crossed.
I don’t know if I was helpful with this post. I’m just talking to hear myself talk at this point.
I need to keep my mind occupied.
I will be posting soon.
If I survive this.
-Hogs and quiches