Cleaning the Blender

I mentioned that I was having trouble with the chapter I am currently working in the second book of my fantasy series The Peaceful, Brave, and Just. (Like PB&J, no?) I have been hitting it hard this week, and today is the ninth day of work for me, although I did skip one blog entry.

I hate the idea of writer’s block. I like to imagine that I don’t experience it. My solution to avoid it is to draft copy in which I just throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. Whatever comes into my head, that is what I type, with the idea that I’ll go and clean it up later, many times, until the goodness comes out. Sort of like polishing copper.

The upshot of this is, I now have a complete chapter that’s thirty pages long. It needs to be about ten, and it will probably end up around seventeen when all is said and done. That’s great because in that thirty pages there has to be some gold. Of course, I have to dispose of the chaff. A lot of chaff.

Last night at work, while I was cleaning sticky strawberries off the blender, I had a revelation about what I need to do. See, in this chapter my character is climbing some stairs, thinking about how he’s arrived where he is, and wondering where he’s going to go next. Metaphorically, of course. I have him remembering past events in his life. The problem with that is a lot of what I typed out is in the form of flashbacks, and flashbacks are exposition, and exposition is boring.

Never fear, while I was cleaning the blender I came up with the solution that is going to help this story progress. That solution is this. I have my character remembering a conversation he had with two friends who are at the top of the stairs, and in this conversation he examines a decision about his future. What’s going to happen now, he’s going to climb to the top of the stairs, he’s going to visit with them, we’re going to have the actual conversation, and he’s going to tell them what happened in his memory that’s also pertinent to his decision. Then he’s going to make the decision. So instead of everything happening passively, it will happen actively. This makes it more interesting to the reader and also allows me the opportunity to communicate my ideas in conversation between characters, thereby removing a lot of boring exposition–hopefully twenty pages worth.

My point is, when something is slowing me down in writing, I don’t try to tackle it with the perfect solution. I make a mess, and then I think about ways to change my perspective that will help the story. Try it! It works. All you have to do is clean the blender.

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Little Victories

I had a three day weekend this week, and all I wanted to do was use the time to write. I started with this blog every day. It is a nice warmup to get my brain flowing. The down side is this week my attention span for writing only seems about an hour long, and this blog takes a lot of that time. When I turn to my novel I find that, although I write quickly, I don’t have seem to have a lot of magic left in the tank. Part of that is what I am working on, a flashback in a book that deals with time travel (how about that?) I dislike flashbacks as a rule. I find them gimmicky, so I am working against my own best advice and for all I know the work I’ve done will be a waste of time.

Yesterday was my last day off, and it just left me feeling worn out. We got our asses kicked in softball the night before, so that didn’t help. I tried the punching bag in the morning, and that felt good, but the endorphins were just missing from my life.

While I eat on my break at work I read the free Reno rag, which has some decent writing, a lot of letters about politics, and a good movie critic. There are three or four columns that are all right. It does not respect me much as a bartender for a corporate entity, but what the hell. I pay my bills.

I read my horoscope and it said that even a broken elevator is still stairs. That cheered me up. I felt like a broken elevator yesterday. Today the sun is still shining, making the flowers I planted grow, and I am happy when I think about the pages I turned out this week.

Connecting to the Audience through Shared Experience

How many times have I heard “I understand where you’re coming from?” How many times have I heard “I don’t understand how someone could do that?”

We are all human beings. Although I feel different from everyone else, I am much more similar than I realize. If I am having a conversation with another person, and one of us says something awkward, it is a good bet that the other person involved in the conversation feels it too. This also applies in situations where there is no conversation going on. We possess empathy that is almost telepathic. This is because we have learned to make decisions based on fine observations of complex details including situation, experience, body language, and communication.

Writing is much more personal than speaking. When I write, I have the ability to guide the characters, to place them in the situation I want to place them in, in the position I want them, using the words I want them to use and taking the action I choose for them. I can rewrite the scene until it is the way I want it. My responsibility as a writer is to get below the first level, the conversational level where we communicate with one another but do not speak about things that really make us think. As a writer I want to reveal the things that I understand but am unwilling to say. It is not about right or wrong, or what is socially acceptable. It is about truth.

It is a delicate balance, because I don’t want to take a character to a place that a reader is unwilling to go. It is important to remember that, when done well, the examination of uncomfortable ideas makes my characters real, and allows my audience to relate to them.

Hemingway and Revision

The ability to revise is what makes great writers.

As an example, I hold up Ernest Hemingway. I can prove the point. My proof does not lie entirely within the pages of Death in the Afternoon, or The Sun Also Rises, or A Farewell to Arms, or The Old Man and the Sea. Whether you love or despise Hemingway there is no arguing that these are great works of 20th century literature. Their popularity and influence is undeniable. The man won a Nobel Prize. For any beginning writer reading Hemingway is dangerous. His style is so strong that it is difficult to read him without copying it.

The style of Hemingway is carefully crafted. To find out where he got it, it is important to read his contemporaries, especially his good friend, Gertrude Stein. I was also surprised to find very Hemingway–ish passages in The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler. Hemingway worked hard to make sure his writing sounded a certain, distinctive way. The proof I spoke about is in the later books, published after his death. These include A Moveable Feast, Islands in the Stream, and The Garden of Eden. I am able to compare these to his earlier works because at the time of his death Hemingway was still so popular that his publisher was able to bring out books he hadn’t finished and still have them be best sellers.

I think that Islands in the Stream, besides lending its name to a Dolly Parton/Kenny Rogers song, was probably almost finished, the closest to publication. A Moveable Feast and The Garden of Eden both have wonderful passages, in which the strength of Hemingway’s skill shows clearly. They both also have parts that suck, where the magic is missing, or the lofty goals of the author have not yet been realized. By reading these books I began to understand how good Hemingway was at revision. The parts he worked on the most stand up against his best work. Where he did not finish his process, it is noticeable. Not because words are misspelled, or out of place, but because the overall effect is not up to the same standard.

Hemingway was a proponent of the subconscious work I was talking about yesterday. Write in the morning, then set it aside and don’t think about it for the rest of the day. He also rewrote endlessly. In the author’s note for his collection of short stories, Hemingway compared himself to a tool that had to be resharpened in order to produce the desired result. He believed in hard work.

When I revise, I like to change everything that catches my eye. When I can read through a passage without stopping, that’s how I know it’s done. I also revise by removal. I am not afraid to kill my babies. There has never been a cut in the history of cuts that was a bad idea. When I finish a novel, I try to take ten percent out. The remainder is always stronger because of the subtraction.

Finally, I make myself read my books. Cover to cover. I know that Hemingway read himself (of course he did.) I think this is something that writers skip a lot. I work so hard on the interior that I forget to look at the finished product, or else I’m afraid to. When I set my work aside for a while, and then approach it as a reader, I am always impressed with it.

Do yourself a favor. Be like Hemingway. Revise.

The Importance of Memory

In his lecture Mr. Reid also spoke of the importance of memory. He did it in this way. He said, go forth and brainstorm, writers. He showed us a page with words spread across it like paint. Then he said, go home and go to sleep. Go about your daily business. Come back and start over. Write it all down again.

Now some writers say that it is important to make note of any idea. They walk about with scraps of paper falling out of their pockets. They take time out from conversations to write down tasty bits. You may have seen these writers in Starbucks, observing you over the edge of their laptops. What they are writing is very important, I assure you.

I agree with Mr. Reid. The human brain is, without exception, the most advanced, impressive organ/machine ever seen on our planet. The most amazing thing about it is that we all have one. The second most amazing thing is how it works. Everything that I have experienced in life is in there, along with every thought I have ever had. I may not have access to it right away, but believe me, if it’s worth remembering, I will remember it. (Seems strange when I can’t remember where the milk is inside the store, but that’s the way it is.) So if I put a good idea away, go sleep on it, and let it gestate for a little bit, guess what? It will churn around in there with all the other stuff I don’t understand, with the bits and pieces that have fallen down to a subconscious depth. When the idea is ready to be used, it will resurface, triggered by another idea, or by one of my five senses, and when it does come up for air it will have added form and dimension that I could not have forced on it, but that my brain has added without conscious action on my part.

A note on the physical manifestation of these ideas. Eventually it becomes important to capture thoughts and lay them out in a way that others can understand. I think that writers tend towards superstition the way baseball players do. We like the same paper, the same pencils, the tactile feel of erasers and graphite. We like to write at the same time of day, in the same chair, with the same cup of coffee in our hand. We like it when a perfect paragraph comes out. We sit and stare at it, beautiful there on the white page, and wonder why we can’t make another one just like it. After a few times looking at it, we realize that it’s not perfect anymore. This line has to be changed, and that word, and now the whole thing is messed up. The piece of art is ruined.

To me it is important to be able to get a lot out and quickly. When I am really cruising, I kind of just barf it up on paper, and for that there is nothing better than typing. By typing I can almost keep up with my thoughts, whereas if I am writing by hand what I put down becomes illegible, even to me, and I have to go back and figure it out. When I use the iPad I feel like a wizard, or a conductor, cutting here, tapping to move there. Revision becomes so much easier, as well as printing out finished copy, or sharing to the web. Technology has made it easier to be creative. Don’t let your superstitions keep you from exploring new tools, and don’t let trying to make a perfect piece of art stop you from writing.

Writing and the Collective Consciousness

I have two favorite examples of the collective consciousness. The first is on a small scale and it comes from Apple. I do not use an iPhone, but I have an iPod that I use every day to listen to music. iPod has what they call genius playlists. I pick a song from my collection. In a few seconds’ time, Apple examines all the songs that other iTunes users have purchased. Then my iPod generates a playlist based on that data and the songs I own. These playlists are nearly always good, and nearly always surprising.

The second example of collective consciousness operates on a much larger scale in Nevada sports books and in the global betting market. A bookmaker sets a line for a contest, and then people put their money on one side or the other of that number. As the money goes, the spread changes so that the sports book can come out even. The collective consciousness shows itself in the final score of the game, which an amazing part of the time ends up right at the spread, or the place where all those betters have decided it should be. How do they know? Individually they don’t. They all lose, all the time. Together, however, they know exactly what’s going to happen in the game, BEFORE IT IS EVER PLAYED.

At the writer’s workshop that started me working on this blog, there was an author by the name of Robert Leonard Reid. Mr. Reid spoke about the importance of revision. He was unimpressed with the current quality of our letters. He made me an instant friend when he held up Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and said that it was the only guide a writer needs. Mr. Reid also said something that I’m not sure I agree with. He mentioned several novels that were published in the years 1850-1855. I believe the titles were Moby Dick, Wuthering Heights, The Scarlett Letter, Walden, and Leaves of Grass. Mr. Reid said that he feared there would never again be a five year period that produced such amazing work.

I think there were other factors at play in that impressive string. The most important to me would be changes in social values, availability of printing presses, and a growing awareness of a world that extended past the end of Dad’s farm. We have seen similar periods of genius in music and art. What I am trying to say is, the stories are out there. There is always greatness present, somewhere, and saying that we will never again see genius because of the “dumbing down” of society is admitting that the devil has won.

The fact is, the changes around us caused by technology and globalization may have us perched on the brink of a new age of greatness. It may show itself at any time, with a new generation of great writers, musicians, artists, or in a field we have not even imagined yet. They will not be recognized as great because they write a new Moby Dick. They will be recognized as great because they do something that has never been seen before.

How does this affect me? Well, I am a human being, and therefore, I am a part of the collective consciousness. As a writer, it is my job to observe, and imagine, and write. I don’t have to know what trigger will propel my art to prominence. It is not my job to know. It is my job to create, and create well, and hope that what I produce fits so well into the tapestry of human experience that it becomes inescapable.

“!” meets “-ly”

I was eleven years old when I first thought that I could be a writer. It happened like this. There was a book that had become very popular, the Harry Potter or Fifty Shades of Grey of that generation.

Before continuing, I want to say that I’m uncomfortable bashing popular literature. Those authors have done something that I dream of doing. When I think of them I am filled with jealousy. In college my first creative writing teacher made a huge deal out of saying “don’t write like Stephen King.” I wanted to respond “What’s wrong with Stephen King? I love Stephen King. He’s sold a million billion books. That’s what I want to do. Why would I not want to be just like him?” Seriously. Why wouldn’t I?

Anyhow, this book was popular, and everyone was reading it, and I wanted to read it too, even though in that prepubescent phase I had no idea what was making it sell so well. So I found a copy at the library and started in. I hit page four, and I will never forget the line I read. It went like this:

She woke up screaming!

Now that’s a heck of a line. It was set off just like that, in its own paragraph. Even at eleven years old, I took one look at it and I thought that the writer needed help. That exclamation point was not right. I couldn’t say why it wasn’t right. I just knew that it wasn’t. Worse, the author repeated the line throughout the book.

With all the wisdom of my forty-three years, I’m going to try to explain why a writer should not use exclamation points.

The reason that exclamation points are no good is because they force the author’s feelings on the reader. The author who wrote that story thought it was so important that she hit me over the head with it, jarring me out of the story. Instead of putting me there, in the clan of the cave bear, instead of showing me that her young heroine woke up with the night sweats, she took the easy way out by telling me how important it was.

To this day I distrust punctuation. Periods and commas are okay, I guess. I use question marks in dialogue, but I think what’s really good in a story is words. Words that explain what’s going on. Words that tell about my characters and the situations they’re in. Words that bring the reader into the story. Never exclamation points. It may be more difficult to make my readers believe that a character woke up terrified, but if I paint the picture right with words, believe me, they’ll get it and my story will be better for it.

The same holds true for the “-ly” words. When I get done with a story now, I turn on the handy Find feature on my iPad and, like a hunter stalking prey, I search out the words that end in -ly. Then I try to rewrite the lines so that I don’t have to use the adverbs. Why? Because adverbs are cheating. Saying that a character was the “most beautiful girl in world” doesn’t do a thing for my readers. A true author tells his or her readers what the girl looks like, and then lets them draw their own conclusions. If I’ve done my job correctly, then they will see the most beautiful girl in their head, and I will have achieved my goal of showing, not telling.

The Neversong

This is the Neversong, the flagship of the Narze banshee Krakk Karrikksson. It is from The Peaceful and Just, my first book about the four wards of the pallbearers. Why do I love fantasy, a genre that draws a collective yawn from publishers?

For one thing, I grew up reading fantasy. I started with the Chronicles of Narnia, the most popular books by Clive Staples Lewis. I read all seven of those books every year for fourteen straight years, long before they made the movies, although not before they made the old animated movie that is still the best one. Of course I read the Middle Earth stories, also long before they became vehicles for Peter Jackson and his CGI magic. I am still fascinated by the beginnings of those careers, Lewis and Tolkien sitting in a bar over a pint and deciding that they would each write a novel, one based on time (the Hobbit) and one based on space (Out of the Silent Planet). I am sure in my heart that it was the Four Winds Bar mentioned in Blue Oyster Cult’s song Astronomy, and nothing you say will change my mind.

Next I moved on to Lloyd Alexander, still for my money the best YA fantasy author of all time, although Susan Cooper and Robin McKinley deserve to be in the same ring of honor. Then I went to college, took writing courses, and learned that fantasy is best left for others to tackle. I still don’t know why. Actually, now I do. It’s because I have to make everything up. EVERYTHING.

I still dig C. S. Lewis, although the Narnia books are a little too YA for me to enjoy except as a memory. I dig him because he was a Christian apologist. Now this is not a blog about religion, and religion is something that I don’t really want to discuss here, except to relate C. S. Lewis’ philosophy on the whole deal. I didn’t know then that the Chronicles of Narnia were a Christian parable, and I’m still that naive when I read, thank goodness.

Clive Staples started out as an atheist. Then he went off to war, and became more of an atheist. Then he rediscovered faith, and achieved fame talking and writing about it. He married a woman he loved deeply, she got sick, she had a miraculous recovery, and then she died, but Clive Staples kept his faith. He compared faith to Joy. Now I don’t care who your God is, or what religion you are, but that’s exactly right. Faith should be recognizable on earth, and it should show itself as Joy.

This is what Clive Staples said. He said that if a person was searching for God in the world, and they went deep inside of themselves, they would find him or her there, right where they would expect God to be. I believe in that personal, private interpretation of religion. I think that it’s our responsibility as human beings to search for Joy inside ourselves. It’s there, inside all of us, right where we should expect it to be.

The Neversong sure looks a lot like the Dawn Treader, doesn’t it?

The Soundbooth

This is the soundbooth.

In spite of our deep love for the restaurant industry, my wife and I both want to focus on our careers. Mine is writing, so that’s what this blog is about. My wife is learning the art of the voice over, and when she sent in an audition and was told “I love your work, but the sounds of the dogs howling outside are too much,” we decided that she needed a sound booth.

Oh my goodness. I just realized that I named my blog “Ted’s Desk of 1000 Voices,” and she’s the one doing the voiceovers. We are going to have to have some negotiations.

Back to the soundbooth. Let me just say that there is a lot of information about how to build a soundbooth on the internet. There are a lot of videos on YouTube. I tried to watch them all, and then I realized that each one said something completely different. Use foam. Use cheap foam. Use expensive foam. Foam doesn’t do anything. You have to have foam but it doesn’t actually stop any sound from traveling anywhere. That was just the foam advice. I did not see any videos of foam on fire, but I am assuming that the owners of those videos were too embarrassed to publish them on YouTube.

I settled on a three layered approach. Heavy mass, space, and sound treatment. My guest and good friend Bill M. gave me the benefit of his table saw and his wisdom, and we built that thing you see in the picture there. It still needs a door and three more walls, but it makes my wife sound like an actress. And the beagles? You can still hear them. You can probably hear them in Virginia City.

What does all this have to do with writing, you ask?

I think that in order to write, I need the proper space, just like my wife needs a place to record her voice. It has to be a place where she feels safe, where she can concentrate, and where she knows that her voice will be accurately reproduced.

I order to write, I have to be comfortable in my space. The beagles are a distraction, but nothing like problems at work or fear of the bill collector. Of course dificulty comes with life, but the more I can minimize it the more consistent I can be at my craft. I don’t need a big picture window to look out at the world, or a giant desk carved out of marble. I don’t need to be an ex-pat in Paris, or on the beach in Hawaii. When I write, I just need the kitchen table in The Cosmic Cottage and my imagination.