Because

I do not know of a cure for writer’s block, nor for bad advice. Both must be worked through. Fortunately for the story that got into Mulberry Fork Review, I wanted so badly to finish the damn thing that I took on both at the same time. Yes, in my mind, I am some kind of X-Man. Like Kurt Wagner.
(I’ve been reading early 90’s Excalibur… it’s great.)

Flitting images of swashbuckling olympics aside, I know that I started the story Lawrence and the Last Days of Knowing at least five times. I don’t even want to think of how many titles I ran through, but I can say that the very first draft was labeled “Story to refute that magazine writer that pissed you off.” First drafts have the least helpful titles. A few of the false starts were to correct the point of view, then to correct it again, and then “was I sure, I think maybe third person really was the best…” but the real problem was not in POV, but in myself. I wasn’t up to the task that I built in my head. I was attempting to convince myself that one writer could have Metalocalypse volumes of fame while still keeping the story’s feet in reality, and I made the idiotic move of having a main character who didn’t buy it.

I realized after growling at Gatsby(long, unrelated story) that I’d written a Nick Carraway. I really dislike Nicks. Nicks are author filters, used to step back and pretend that you aren’t a part of all the things you wrote. And I understand why Nicks exist. It is flipping horrifying to own all the things that spin out of your head, but the story couldn’t work with a filter. I wrote my main character as the most fervent fan of the absurd idea that the premise hanged upon, and drew the strength of the story through his mad love.

And I still couldn’t finish. Writing’s a bitch, yeah? I got over the block, but I had no roads to the end. Because I was scared. I had this fairy tale about writing and I wanted it to be perfect (oops) because it started to become this manifesto… and all the little sound-bites of writing advice that I’ve gained over the years started to come loose and show themselves like beans when you stir the chili after it’s been simmering a few hours. Hah, my head’s full of chili. Anyway, one of those oldest bits of advice, everyone’s heard it, “show don’t tell” would yell at me when I was in my groove, and my groove would stutter and stop.

Maybe it’s because I’ve never really understood the difference between showing and telling, maybe it’s because words are have always been a telling device in my head, maybe it’s because I’m still unsure which is right and which is left and they both look like “L’s” dammit, I know that trick already, but somehow along the years the word “because” became intrinsically linked with the idea of “telling.”

And then I read The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. And Milan Kundera (bless him) told me what his characters did, and then, right after that, I got a “because.” This caused this thought, or this action, or this feeling, and I was suddenly past the interface, no longer reading the words on the page, but understanding where and why these people were.

So I went back to the manuscript, I opened that one hundredth draft, and I attacked everyone in that story (all 3 characters!) with “Because.” I found a groove. My 100th first draft was full of cause, it had an end, and then, Then! I could finally begin to edit.

Never trust sound-bite advice. There’s too much space outside a simple phrase for all sorts of fears to nest and grow until you’re suddenly afraid of the only thing you really need. Be fearless, and read Kundera!

Lawrence in the Last Days of Knowing is over at Mulberry Fork Review right now, along with many beautiful stories (I especially loved Revlon Red by Patti White, which is one of the prettiest stories about a family I’ve ever read.)

In This Moment

One of the best criticisms I’ve ever received in a rejection letter was that my story began in the wrong place. Short stories do not have the luxury of easing into a story the way novels do. I remember once reading some writing advice in which the advisor was being an asshole and he said “how to begin a story? Start at the beginning and continue on till the end.” I’m sure he thought he was being very clever.

Cleverness has a place, and stupid people put it everywhere.

Anyway, the problem with many improperly timed short stories (including my own) is that the action has already happened. Even years ago, and the story is telling it from far in the future. This can work, but it always begs the question at the outside of the story “why is it being told now?” I’m not talking about the tenses. Tenses are more… decorative. They frame the story, make you feel certain ways. They are mood lighting. The closeness of the action to the date of your story determines how important that action is. Time heals, and it blurs. If you begin your story with the actions far in the past, they hold little interest for your reader in the present.

I’ve encountered many of my own stories in which the problems of the narrative are solved by bringing in the actions close, to a single focal point, and beginning it there. I’m not saying every story needs to start with a plane crash while the main character delivers a baby in the cockpit… actually I think I may have just wrote the opening to Fast&Furious 7 (but I’ll still watch Vin Diesel in anything.) In the story I’m working on now, a war of attrition begins a year and a half before the story begins, and a mother dies only six months after that, but all of that culminates at the start of the story when the two people these actions most affect finally meet on earth. Before, when I couldn’t figure out why I was having problems, the war was some nebulous threat looming out in the future (little impact on the story), and the mother hadn’t been alive for several years (giving all the characters in action time to get used to the idea of an important person not being around, and again, toning down the impact.)

So here’s my advice, sans clever: If the story isn’t working, think about the important Moments in the story. Where are they in relation to the time frame of the short story? Is there a way to bring them closer, make them realer, get away from the blurriness of time? And once you’ve done that, begin. And carry it out until the end.

Butts

I was thinking about drawing butts the other night while my head was swimming and I couldn’t sleep. My subconscious was playing around with the prospects of being a fuckup, and I’m going to try and re-create that stream of consciousness here.

Anthony Clark, the fellow who writes Beartato once recommended that the first thing drawn on a pretty new notebook should be a butt. Drawing a butt breaks up the sanctity of the blank page, and frees you to draw whatever else you like with impunity. It couldn’t be worse than a butt.

This appeals to me, as a fuckup. I’m not so great with words; I forget the ones I need when I speak, and I spend a lot of conversation time staring blankly while my hands pantomime the actions I associate with the nouns I need. When I write, I am more connected to my vocabulary, but there are still moments in which I have no idea if there is indeed a word for that face you make when you realize you’ve been talking to someone you’ve mistaken for your high school English teacher for the past ten minutes.

Seriously, is there a word for that? There should be.

I do not write long-hand. (Those muscles have atrophied, and can never be rebuilt.) I can’t draw a butt on the heading of my first drafts. Well, I could, this is a touch screen, but I’m not going to do that. Also, touch screens suck. They don’t register my hands as living. But anyway, I try to remember Butts when I’m writing a first draft. There is nothing sacred about a blank word document. I do not need to preserve some beauty inherent in nothing, nor am I obliged to so carefully choose my words that everything written will sing with Whole Story Truth in a first draft.

J. D. Salinger wrote on a typewriter. He used only his pointer fingers, and jabbed out every single letter that way. Salinger was great. But I write with my fists. I should explain. I developed the ability to type shortly after I developed the ability to read, and while my handwriting looks like an insane mess, I type in whole words the way I read in whole words without picking apart the letters. Where am I going with this? Stream of consciousness, right, just keep going… I write with my fists. Full bore, lets go, don’t stop, if you slow the mocking screen saver will come on and taunt you…

First drafts are the time to draw butts. Expiriment with language because you cannot remember the proper way to say things. Invent a word when you need it. Keep running, and let the story fall into place while you go. It’s a race between brain and hands, who will create the world first? Whatever happens, if you reach the end YOU WIN.

The reward is editing. I flipping love editing. And the editor’s brain is different than then one you use for first drafts. Yeah, it might cry in shame at the first draft attempt to create the word “fartgrubbler,” but it might just as easily enjoy the strange and naturally beautiful structure you accidentally built into the story. (Read a lot of well structured authors: your first draft brain will graft some I-beams into your own writing.) And second drafts are the time to divide those errors and leave in the accidental beauty.

What I’m advising is to never fear the butts. Make ugly things, there will be greatness there, too. But slowing down to worry over the possible mistakes that might make it in will keep you from achieving any spontaneous beauty. And the surprises are the best part of writing.

Now, this looks nothing at all like the flitting thoughts racing across my alcohol-addled head at two in the morning, but I kind of like it. It’s tres first draft. And I’m going to be a bit of a fartgrubbler and press “publish.”

Editing through rookie city…

I write little notes to myself in red text on the computer screen when I edit.  Not only are the notes quite helpful, but they illuminate the roads I’ve gone down in my writing.  I was working on this particular story right as I started reading Milan Kundera, and it was giving me a hell of a time until I read a passage in his book that began with the word “because.”  For some reason, I had abandoned the word “because” out of a fear that with it I would commit the fateful error of telling over showing.  Through that fear, I’d stuck myself in a mire of character actions without any way for the narrator to weigh in.  And in this story, I as author needed to speak up for common sense while all the characters were lost in disconnect.  Just before the point where I began to read Kundera’s Art of the Novel, I had no flipping clue how to finish the story I’d started, and because I enjoyed the process of digging myself out, I’m going to quote here some of the notes I wrote from that period.

 Starting with my favorite:

“What if the studio was a tiny house on a quiet street… I could burn it down… but that is an author action, not a character action.  Who is the real person in this story?  Diane is the only one who acts…”

I use a lot of elipses to speak to myself.  Also, I’ve had to keep myself from burning down so many short stories.  I get to a certain point and think “wouldn’t it be nice if I just light it on fire so I don’t have to find an end?”  What’s funny is, the story I’ve got coming up in Evil Girlfriend Media has a fire, but I set that up right from the beginning.  It was a good one, too, so it will last me through quite a few more stories before I get the urge to light it all ablaze.  Anyway, at this point I had two main characters who really did not make any choices of their own, and my comment on this third character, Diane, who was only in it for a small bit yet acted as the turning point, I realized I’d have to punch up the main folk’s involvement.  They needed to make choices, and I started to write in the word “because” around their actions to figure out just what those choices might be.

“If you were tremendously famous for the mask you wore, and the mask became too heavy, why would you not just take it off?  …because there’s no one behind the mask.”

By answering questions about the character’s actions, I realized that the plot dropped off where I strayed from their “because.”  The masked woman was difficult to write for me.  Her actions were illogical, and I’m kind of a Spock.  When I answered her question, her actions moving toward catharsis at the end of the story all fell into place. 

“If the audience knows what Larry is walking into, the story will be stronger.  Don’t be so damn coy.”

I cuss at myself, too.  But I’m glad this little bit was in there.  This note sprang from a moment in which all the characters knew something that I as author was keeping from the reader in a misguided attempt to be clever.  There’s nothing really clever about hiding ones hand behind ones back, but in type it’s sometimes hard to remember that.  What’s really clever is to show all your cards, and still surprise the reader in how they fall into place.  Anyone can flip a switch in a story and say that everything you read was a lie.  (of course it was, fiction is all lies, that’s why they’re best at truths)  But it takes brains to toss a pack of cards in the air and have them land as a model of the White House.

I’ve seen it happen, so long as you’re willing to accept that metaphor.  It’s the most amazing sort of magic that fiction can pull off, and it makes Gandalf green with envy.

I do my best to avoid “I’m so clever” moments in fiction, but I do commit them from time to time.  God forgive me.  Nothing worse than an author getting in the way of a damn good story.

“Make the obsession palpable.  Third party is keeping you from making this palpable.”

I started this story with a main character who was secondary to the action.  He was witness to another’s obsession, and it insulated myself and the reader from the story.  I got rid of this, made him the one with the obsession, and in doing so I was able to ditch the “I Don’t Care” mask.  “I Don’t Care” is such an easy mask to wear, it’s comforting, and it keeps you from getting hurt, but in fiction it is a flipping killer.  One of my favorite bits from Roald Dahl’s Matilda is when The Trunchbull is explaining how to get away with anything.  You never go by halves.  She was using this philosophy as a way of keeping parents from believing how terribly their children were being tortured, but it really has other applications.  Going by halves leaves room for doubt, and when you are telling a story, the reader cannot doubt what you are saying.  While they read, they must believe you, and if you are not passionate, and if you hide behind the words “I don’t care,” how can anyone trust you to tell a whopping good lie?

It is scary to care so much.  You can get hurt that way.  But sitting on the bench, too scared to ever take a chance because you might not look cool?  That’s so much worse.  I propose we all look foolish.  It will do the world some good.