Monday, March 30, 2015

But what about when writing becomes a burden?

On Wednesday, I managed to write about 1,500 words towards my story. It wasn’t torture, it didn’t hurt; I was shocked at how much I’d built it up in my head to be this extremely “difficult” thing.

But after Wednesday, the tide ebbed and I was once more stranded on the high ground of inspirationlessness. I know as well as anyone that “waiting for inspiration” isn’t a valid strategy to writing, but I’ve been feeling almost abandoned by my muses. Thinking about writing has been frustrating, and frustration has made me feel veritably glued to my couch. Not only do I not write, I also don’t do anything else I need to do. Everything seems unapproachable, unattainable, and frankly, pointless. I really wanted to give up, but I stubbornly couldn’t accept that I could walk away from my novel, which had so much promise and so much time sunk into it, and a bunch of people whose opinions I respect waiting for it.

But not being able to walk away from it felt like a chain. I was feeling worthless, which made it worse... I’m sure most of you know how this goes. Getting stuck creatively can feel a lot like depression. (Not being a mental health professional, I’m not sure when something crosses the border into depression—does sadness have to be a part of it? I wasn’t feeling sad, at least not for lengths of time. Weekends were great. I still enjoyed things. Etc.)

Last night, as I was falling asleep, my mind wandered to where I had left Cassidy... and then it wandered farther. I “wrote,” in my head, the subsequent scene. I have greased the axles of my writing wheels and today, I’m excited to write. Nonetheless, I’m going to post here what I think regarding When Writing Becomes A Burden.

Writing can feel like a burden for a variety of reasons. I think a major one is: Life Is Happening. Something major is going on in your life that’s sucking a lot of your energy and the idea of spending any of that precious resource on “frivolous” creative endeavors simply seems overwhelming. You lost a job or got a new one. You ended a relationship, or began one, or your relationship changed. You had a baby or got pregnant. You got sick or someone you care for got sick. Whatever. You are out of emotional bandwidth. In my opinion, this is the best, most legit, reason to suspend a creative endeavor. You need to take care of you. Sometimes, when whatever it is that is sucking your bandwidth resolves, you can’t pick up your project where you left off. That’s sad, but it’s a fact of life. Unless you can recapture your headspace of the time, I would say, don’t stress it. Move on to something new.

One that I’ve struggled with a lot before Cassidy came along and introduced herself, was I’d have a tiny idea fragment—a character, a setting, a one-sentence summary—that simply didn’t have enough substance to grow into a full story idea. I would have a lot of creative energy and no targeted creative outlet. It’s easy to say “when you get like that, write something, draw something, do something,” but it’s just as frustrating when you sit down and open a text document and type “I hate this why can’t I write” a hundred times. Or scribble the same noses, eyes, lips you’ve been scribbling for years. Writing or drawing with no direction doesn’t usually feel good, at least not to me. It feels futile. And it’s a little sad because, before Cassidy, I hadn’t had a fully formed creative idea in years.

Getting to the point where writing feels like a burden while you’re still in the middle of your project is the worst, though. That’s where projects die. And it’s mostly because, working on a project is like climbing a mountain. It gets really hard. It is really easy to turn back, because behind you, the mountain has flattened out. You’ve gotten bored with it, you’ve had some other ideas, you want to do something else for a while. But I firmly believe that that voice—the bored voice, the lazy voice, the frustrated, tired, distracted voice—is a defense mechanism that is no longer useful to you as a modern human, and listening to it is nothing but destructive. If you hear that voice, that’s okay. It’s impossible not to. Hear it, listen to it, and like a teenager to her parents, reject it. Say “Okay, I’m tired. I’m frustrated. I’m bored. I hear you. But I’m working on it anyway.”

That voice will fade, the more you tune it out. And if you’re working towards an end, you might have days where you delete everything you wrote. But the next day, you’ll do it better. As long as you gave it your best try, you’ll feel accomplished—much more so than if you did nothing.

So stick with it. Fill your personal library with finished projects instead of fragments. Give yourself room to take care of you, but hold yourself accountable when your fear/frustration/boredom is trying to exert power over you. You can do it. You are powerful. And remember, you make your own inspiration.

Word count: 32,710 (翆)

Monday, March 23, 2015

Thoughts on poetry

Firstly, let me say to all my legion of readers: please don’t listen to me at all. Write what you want to write. If you’re feeling it, don’t agonize over it—just write it. Don’t worry about the poetry that comes out when you’re needing to express yourself. My thoughts are those of an amateur poet, with very little practice in the last ten years or so. These are thoughts based on reading some amateur poetry recently, and on poetry that the writer wants to, eventually, make public. So, take what you can use from it.

Ahem. Disclaimer complete, moving on.

In my consumption of poetry, I’ve tried to put my finger on what, in my opinion, makes a poem transcend the category of “brain dump” for me, and enter the world of “more widely appealing.” (You like my categories? I made them myself.) For the longest time, I couldn’t figure out what made one “bad” and another “good,” but I think I’ve figured it out, to a large extent.

Firstly, poetry should capture the essence of a moment in the fewest syllables possible. This is why, while a word like “luminescence” sounds poetic, “glow” is probably more fitting in a poem. Also, words like “amazing” and “incredible” aren’t overly long, but they are surprisingly non-specific. A sunset can be amazing for an entirely different reason from witnessing a birth, or an individual’s achievements. “Incredible” literally means “unbelievable,” and it can have positive or negative connotations—I need more details to understand why something is so unbelievable, which means that it’s redundant. Make me want to use the word “amazing” or “incredible” once I’ve heard your reasons for it.

Secondly, poetry needs cadence, or else it’s prose. It doesn’t have to rhyme or follow Iambic Pentameter or haiku or limerick, but from one line to the next, cadence (and theme) should be similar. Don’t switch between euphuistic, sesquipedalian words and brief, utilitarian words. Don’t go from a three-word line to a twenty-six word line to a seven-word line, and so on. We, as the readers of your poetry, are searching for a rhythm: a similarity, a pattern, something our mind can lace itself into and get dragged along by. Poetry can be so hard to read anyway, cadence helps us follow it. Don’t make it harder on us.

Thirdly, metaphor is your friend. You’re trying to take something that gives you feels and explain to the rest of the world at large what those feels are and why you have them—ultimately, you want to give them those feels too. Take the thing that is giving you feels and turn it into something universal. That sunset? Make it the warm heartbeat of the mother in the womb. That hideous truck that you loathe? Make it the discarded sock on the roadside. Simile is okay for poetry, but metaphor is great. In fact, make the metaphor so grandiose that we as readers don’t know you’re talking about a sunset or a truck until we’ve gathered enough clues to find your source materials.

Fourthly, and along those same lines, don’t spell it out for us. There have been so many poems that I’ve absolutely loved—right up until the moment that the poet ends the poem with something like “and that’s why I don’t want to see you again” or “that’s how I knew it was true love” or whatever the fuck. A poem, more than other writing, is meant to be a mirror we see ourselves in. Even if we didn’t get the exact message you’re trying to get across to us, that’s okay—we got our own message out of it. If you can’t make us see whatever it is you see in the body of the poem, finishing the poem with an explainer isn’t going to make it better. It’s sorta like explaining a joke. If I didn’t get it the first time, having it explained isn’t likely to make it funny… and if I did get it the first time, having it explained is really not going to make it funny.

Several (many, lots) years ago, I had a GeoCities website where I hosted some poetry. There were several that I think are were actually good, or at least were on the right track. Sadly, that website disappeared one day and took all my poems with it. I have a few left over from the early aughts, and I’ma post one here now, even though I think it lacks mightily. Not fair of me to criticize without showing off all my flaws, right? So, I stand naked before you, and share my poetry.

(written 9/1/02)

Why do you sleep with the lights on?
What in the dark reaches for you
Brushes your cheek
and scares you to hide in false sunlight
From its caressing hands?
What comfort do you get
From exploring the night behind the glass
Of a windshield?
Are your headlights sufficient protection
From the fingers of the darkness?
Will you ever drive far enough to escape
The feel of its skin?

Tell me
Do you feel its cold touch
In the arms of a lover?
Does your mind ache for
Its lover’s embrace?
It repulses you
It draws you
You shiver in the dark and wait
For its touch
And you turn on the lights
To dispel the chill on its fingertips
And to dispel also
The terrifying ecstasy it brings
For you know
If you let it hold you
Death waits in its arms.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

My (only) beef with Supernatural

I’ve been watching Supernatural with my friends. I have very few complaints with the show: the dialogue is natural and believable for the most part, the acting is great, and the plots are fully fleshed out with a minimum of hand-waving. I admired the show in the early seasons because they bravely killed off characters for permanents. at this point, in the 6th season, they6th Season Spoilers! Click at your own risk! can’t seem tat I’m complaining; Cas and Bobby are way cooler than Sam and Dean. It feels like the writers know it, too...) But I do have one major problem with the show, and I honestly don’t know if it’s bad writing or if it’s just portraying an outlook I can’t sympathize with.

At the beginning of the show, Sam is an idealistic kid: sort of a “modern man” who is in touch with his feelings, capable in the execution of his comparatively normal life, and lets people in. Through a series of events, Sam comes (back) to the realization that the world is an ugly, cruel place and it will hurt you whenever it can. He loses the bright shininess that characterized him at first, hardening him, making him cautious in his trust and affections. This is all understandable, and is not the problem I have. Sam’s arc is one I can get behind.

The problem I have is that Dean basically hasn’t changed in any measurable way since the beginning of the show. He has every reason to: he has had horrific things happen to him. But he’ll spend an incidental episode here or there coming to terms with them, or “acknowledging” the effects they’ve had on him, but when it’s not directly in the forefront of the episode’s plot, it doesn’t seem to impact his character development.

He internalizes his character development, which is theoretically fine, but thus far, it’s development in name only. It doesn’t affect the way he deals with the problems that arise, it doesn’t change his biases or ingrained (mis)conceptions. He’ll spend a few episodes drinking in every scene, and Sam will make a comment, and then something will make him decide it’s a bad idea, so he’ll stop. But that’s just back to baseline Dean. It has undone one of the only ways in which his character has actually developed in the course of the story.

I realize that many of my feels here are unverifiable and unquantifiable, but the one way in which I feel the writing falls far short of its potential is this: each brother goes through his personal conflicts, and refuses to share his struggles with the other. He won’t talk about it. When asked, he’s always “fine.” Every. Goddamn. Time. They’ll spend time talking about how they need to talk about what they’re going through, how that’s what they’re there for, how they can’t make it alone. Then, the next episode, they’re both “fine” again. It’s infuriating.

I could understand it if they tried talking and it was a terrible idea. I could get why they would shy away from sharing. But the fact of the matter is, when they manage to drag words out of each other, it always ends up better for it. Why on earth do they need to be convinced and re-convinced and re-convinced every time they have something they’re going through?

My theory is that the writers are thinking to themselves, “Sam and Dean are Man’s Men. They don’t have ‘feelings,’ them’s for Ladies. They can handle it themselves.” But it keeps recurring as a “thing”: they can’t handle it themselves, everyone around them thinks they shouldn’t try to handle it themselves, and handling it collaboratively is always better. They’re not computers; they can learn—and in a well-written story, they would learn. They both know better.

I’ve learned from this, though. It’s important to remember that characters change and grow, in their habits, words, conceptions, etc; they don’t just experience things. Eliminating one inter-personal problem doesn’t eliminate all problems: if Sam and Dean talked about their feelings more, maybe they would spend some time being too involved in each other’s personal lives, and have to deal with that. Having the same problems over and over again... it just isn’t interesting. (It’s also the definition of madness.) The longer it goes on, the less sympathetic they seem to the audience. The more the audience gets interested in the secondary characters. The more the audience rolls their eyes whenever the characters are having a problem—any problem, not just interpersonal, because we know how the solving process will go. It develops from frustrating to irritating to cliché and boring. And “boring” is definitely the sort of thing that writers and shows want to avoid.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Don't get bogged down in word count!!

Writers' Group was yesterday, and as per usual, it was great and awesome. For once, WIP-feedback was both gratifying and greatly needed (on my part). I was feeling really stuck and couldn't figure out where I wanted (or needed) Cassidy to go. If a book is a ski hill, I felt like I was standing on the top of the mountain where the bottom of the mountain is the reveal/climax/what have you. (I realize this is the opposite of the imagery we were taught in high school. Go with it.) Once I start sliding down that hill, the descent will be fast and blurry and kept in line with only a minimum amount of control.

And I was (/am) at only ~30k words.

My initial goal for my second draft was between 75 and 80k. My first draft was almost exactly 50, it being NaNoWriMo and all. I was baffled: how could my second draft be so much shorter

Of course, to answer that would be begging the question. There is no proof that my second draft will be shorter than my first draft. I can’t know that until it’s finished.

Secondly, if my second draft is shorter than my first draft, there are a lot of things I’ve left out of my second draft that I intend to go back through and re-insert: for example, worldbuilding; fleshing out her “missing year”; mood setting; a few other things. Referring to things like that, I’ve come up with my own personal hashtag: #ThirdDraftProblems. I’m super douchey about it, too. I do the Jimmy Fallon hashtag gesture and everything.

But even so—even though I know I’m leaving things out—I am still feeling paralyzed because I feel like I’m zeroing in on the end too fast. And this is not a problem I should concern myself with. Why? Thanks for asking!

They say you shouldn’t include anything in your story that doesn’t contribute to the development of the plot, the world, the character, or some combination of the three, and I strongly agree. That being said, there is probably an infinite amount of things that do contribute to the story that we choose to leave out when constructing our first, or second-first, drafts. If it ends up being short, then it probably feels short, and you’re missing the opportunity to fully flesh out your character or your world or sometimes, even the plot. There are things that you can include to make everything feel more rounded and complete. For example, in my first-first draft, I had a scene where Cassidy talks to some baristas at a coffee shop which had resisted the tide of franchise coffee shops that had swept the nation. They were insufferable hipsters, which was fun to write—but more fun was realizing that, due to the nature of her memory loss, Cassidy didn’t know how coffee was made. One of the baristas made reference to ‘slingin’ bean juice.’ After that point, Cassidy assumes that coffee is, literally, coffee bean juice, and wonders how one juices a bean.

That scene didn’t have an encore in my second-first draft, but I still love it. I want to include it, if I can. I’ve even invented the café where it would take place. But I have a feeling that, this time around, it may not make it in.

Unless the story needs lengthening. Or even rearranging, or whatever.

I realized something else at Writers’ Group that I had been honestly ignorant of until then. I’d written my first-first draft with an eye to snarky humor: serious story but told with a humorous voice, like Gun, With Occasional Music. This time around, though, I haven’t been doing that nearly as much. There are funny moments, but I haven’t done nearly the number of similes that one associates with the noir genre as I did in Cassidy0.

(<Aside> I just wrote Cassidy0, or “Cassidy prime” for you non-math-nerds out there, because I got sick of saying first-first draft. From now on, first-first draft will be Cassidy0 and second-first draft will be Cassidy1. No, it’s not easier to type, but it makes me happy. So there. </Aside>)

I asked my friends, as we were nearing the end of the discussion, “So okay, is it funny?” and everyone’s face sorta fell and they looked uncertain, and I immediately went over my writing in my head and realized... it really isn’t funny. As I said before, there are individual scenes or lines that are funny, but by and large the situation isn’t funny, the dialogue isn’t funny very often, and even Cassidy’s internal monologue usually isn’t funny. That actually makes me a little sad. I like the noir humor; it’s part of why I wanted to write a noir novel to begin with. Plus, I do feel like the noir humor is part of what makes the genre what it is; without that, it’s just grit. The humor is what shines a little light into the darkness against which our noir hero battles. I mean, the very word “noir” simply means “black.” We need to lighten it up, don’t we?

I’m going to file that under #ThirdDraftProblems.

Word Count: 29,449 (猉)