Dispatches

I jokingly asked a friend today what day of the week it was. The answer actually surprised me. I didn’t realize it was Thursday until they said something. Things are very weird these days. I could have sworn it was Wednesday, or maybe some other day of the week with a forgotten name taken from gods that have long since been reduced to statuary.

Yesterday was a good day writing. I finished at around 10:30pm and it was a very hard chapter to write. I’m not very happy with it, but the words are down and the poetry can get added with subsequent drafts. That’s what drafts are for. What is important is the story was told, laid out bare, ugly, selfish, and still painful. Today I’m going to work on something more experimental. I’m boiling down three years of a person’s life into a montage. There are a few reasons for this. For one, I’m playing with structure to see if I can convey the needless repetition of what has happened in this period of time and break it down to its essence. The other reason is frankly, I’m sick of dealing with this part of the story. Time to move on. I’m hoping that on a metafictional level, the reader will also be as equally swept away and frustrated by it as I am. But it won’t be so dragged out that they stop reading.

After this there are a couple more hard chapters to write and then some pieces that start bringing everything together. It’s probably more of a story told in seven acts, as opposed to three.

I had to really bite my tongue this morning while purusing Facebook. A friend had posted a snippet of description from a book she loved and the comments which followed put my hackles up. It was beautiful piece of writing. Evocative. Poetic. Simple. Gorgeous. The commenter said something about “this should probably have been one of the author’s darlings that should have been killed.”

To go off on a brief rant, which I will, this just bothered me.

I enjoyed Stephen King’s book “On Writing” thoroughly (and to anyone who had read the book, yes, I deliberately have added these adverbs). Stephen King is a successful writer, known for the genre that he has been published in most of all. Horror. His stories are very cinematic. He has made millions of dollars, and still been able to sustain his career in spite of struggles with alcoholism, cocaine, and being too big for his britches. He had really only written four stories. The Body, the Shining, the Green Mile, and Pet Semetary. The rest have been a combination of these four elements. A group of friends/compatriots walking around trying to deal with some assholes on their way to some supernatural foe they probably brought into this world anyway. Just like how you can paint any picture with four colors and some black and white, he has done well for himself.

I used to subscribe to his lectures in On Writing about getting rid of all the adverbs. It echoed Strunk and White with “Eleminate all unnecessary words.” Simple is better. Hemingway figured this out with short, declarative sentences. But he also ran amok with parallels and strings of whimsicle descriptions about things and took us on a journey which defied rules as well as struture.

My point being that there are more ways to write. Probably as many ways to write as there are people holding a pen. You learn the rules so you can break them for effect. When Stephen King pulls his adverbs he does so for the benefit of his editors, and for the benefit of readers who like reading stories about children in peril, vomit, and getting fucked by ghosts. Compare IT with Look Homeward, Angel and you are seeing stories that are equally loved by their fans, but work in completely different ways.

To be clear, there are no rules in writing other than telling the story in the best possible way. Some people do that with poetry, others do that with flat, cold prose. The problem, however, is that so many of us write to please an editor or land an agent. We shove our story, our truths into a box that is ready for a label and a manageable size, weight, and dimension for consumption. The bean counters need this. The editors have a dozen other manuscripts so it you can just write it as easy for them to read as possible, then they can get back to the rest of their backlog. The readers all line up at Barnes and Nobel or Amazon to mechanically drill through their own TBR piles. The more similar the voices the better. The bland cover art. The titles that resonate with other titles they liked. They no longer become readers, but moreso a pump to receive and process writing. Art is allowed in such limited quantities that a publisher might consider something unusual like omission of quotation marks or weird formatting.

Consider the success of Gone Girl a few years ago. Now consider the number of books since then with similar cover art and the word “Girl” in the title. Sometimes I wonder if editors don’t use refrigerator magnets to create these titles. The stories are bland, devoid of adverbs, and easy for the readers to consume and process and buy more. The gatekeepers will publish ten books that are bland, lackluster, and not even written very well, favoring those instead of stories that are challenging, thought-provoking, or written above a sixth-grade level.

Stephen King, as much as I admire the man’s success, was what my reader friends were cutting their teeth on in the fifth grade. He’s not Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, or Anais Nin. He even admits this. He is the ham sandwich in the working man’s lunch box as opposed to the multi-course meal at a Michelin-starred restaurant. People live off ham sammiches! But expecting everyone to produce nothing but ham sammiches is probably a reason people don’t read like they used to anymore. And why read something like Stephen King when you could actually just read Stephen King?

Today I went to the bookstore and decided to look through the writer’s reference section. Books about “How to become a great writer!” written by someone I’ve never heard of before. Books that talk about how story trumps structure, published in a font so awful and migraine inducting I couldn’t get past the first page. These reference books know where to get you too. Starting at around $18 for a slim volume of advice, all the way up to $30 for a bigger named writer you’ve probably seen a movie adaption from one of their books leading the pack.

I’ll drop a spoiler for you.

It’s a lot of dumb luck, connections you make along the way, and perseverance. Breaking rules, following opportunities, and not being afraid to open yourself wide to criticism, hatred, and quite possibly connection with your reader. It’s not about writing to an audience, unless that is how you buy your Duesenbergs. There are lots of rich, bad writers out there. There are lots of brilliant writers out there who have starved to death.

My own story might not be what someone likes. Some people will hate it. Some people might like it. I’m not writing for them. I’m not writing to get rich. I’m writing because I have to. This story has been telling me to write it for months and if I don’t, I slowly start to go crazy. I feel more like a captive being held for ransom than an author.

But there is one thing I do know. If I want to use adverbs, purple prose, or artsy structure, that’s my decision. I know the rules, so naturally, I get to break them.

Plans

I have the whole week ahead of me, which should mean lots of writing, lots of working on projects, and all of that. But it’s Monday, which usually just entails getting my bearings and trying to get my life together. It’s always hard to see my son go back to his mom’s for the week. You can’t help but wonder if you have done enough, and it is exhausting dealing with his needs, school, keeping a ten year old mentally engaged enough to not be bored out of his mind. Especially since right now he has no friends, and the schools seem to be concerned only with making sure the state and the Department of Education recognize that the teachers are earning their cut. Hence the Zoom meetings peppered all throughout the day which demand that you are sitting in a chair, interacting with the general chaos of the classroom online.

There is no middle ground.

When he is gone, I miss him like I have lost a part of myself. The house is too quiet. That takes over for about a day and I experience a sense of loss until the evening when I can actually feel productive. Throughout the day, my body becomes an experiment in equilibrium. Enough caffeine to keep me moving, then enough food, protein, sugars, fibre, etc. to keep my moods in balance. Too much sugar and I want to sleep and then I get depressed. I gain weight too. Too much protein and I’m always hungry, and protein isn’t cheap. I only eat a couple meals a day anyway. When you are alone, meal prep is time consuming and pointless.

This week, my plans, once I get going again, are to try to write ten pages per day, seek out leads for travel writing, post at least a few times here and on my travel site, and hopefully get a podcast in. I have been paying for extra time and indexing on my podcast site, but with everyone on lockdown, I dislike the idea of sitting around talking to myself for any length of time.

Sometimes it feels like writing is just sitting around talking to yourself too. As with talking to yourself, you start wondering if you are crazy, if you are saying anything worth saying, and are you wasting your time.

When I did almost nothing during the day at my day job and they rewarded me with money, that was such a weird experience. Now I work my ass off, and not getting paid.

I also have that fear that once this project is done it will just reveal what a complete prick I really am. And nobody will buy it. And I might as well have been sitting around eating paint all day instead.

Inkblots

There are two kinds of ways to write, at least this is what you’ll hear about the most. Plotting and flying by the seat of your pants. I’ve used both and have had success with both methods. Sometimes it’s a mix of these two. Plotting usually involves outlining, Big Chief tablets of scenes and plot points and character descriptions that all work together like the mainsprings and gears of a watch. The other way is a form of madness in which you just vomit the story onto the page, sorta like how Kerouac wrote “On the Road.” I’ve heard arguments for and against both.

So, with my current project, I decided to write in a different way. Normally I have been one to try to plot something, even try to foolscap the thing like Steven Pressfield says to do, and I always wind up with the story bound up. The beginning is so polished and worked over again and again like a smooth stone in a river, and the end is either rough or non-existant. I keep focusing on the details in the beginning and finding it difficult to warp the direction of the plot into the denoument given all the elements from the beginning.

It’s a lot like being a master of the Alphabet until you get to more obscure letters like Q. The rest, except for S and T is seldom used and occupies the end of the Alphabet because they are the leftover letters.

The problem with this recent project is how it is hard to envision it in a linear way. I want to tell everything simultaneously, not only as the past being a reflection of the present, but also a future which hasn’t happened yet. It has been hard to write without doing this. So, I have been using what I call the Inkblot method.

I just hammer out a scene or an entire chapter, regardless of what point in time it happens in the timeline of the story, and like inkblots on a page, my hope is that each of these scenes will just bleed out and expand into other scenes, creating a timeline on their own, and allowing me to connect the dots at some point with some kind of structure.

Just this week, I realized I was cannibalizing scenes.

No, I was wrong. I wasn’t cannibalizing. The inkblots were finally bleeding in together! The scenes and chapters were beginning to overlap! The inkblots were merging and a I continue, the structure of the story is building itself, regardless of foolscaps, outlines, any of it!

It is an exciting time in the growth of this story.

The funny thing about all of this is the only reason the alphabet has an order is because we give it one. Think about that for a minute.