Saturday, December 14, 2013

My Process

The following occurred while attempting to crank out another chapter of the Awful Space Opera. I thought it might interest you. And by 'you' I mean 'the 48 robots that visit my site every day, plus one bored person from Twitter.' 

Behold, the writer at work:

I wonder if I can somehow meet my word count goal for today by writing about how I don't want to write today? And incorporating it into the story. This might be identical to the strategy of the roughly 80,000 writers who have written stories that begin with a writer sitting around and being discontented about something—writing, not writing, money, no money, spouse, lack of spouse, etc. etc. etc.

And I always want to shoot those people, except for the one who wrote Sunset Boulevard, because he turns himself into a male whore and gets murdered at the end. If you are going to be so self-obsessed that your every project turns autobiographical, that's the way to do it.

Hey look—that was a hundred and twenty words. Anyway, I really am going to follow through with this plan. I don't care if it's after three; I will write 3,000 words before I leave at five.

(No, finishing my word count after I get home is not an option. Work is something you do at work, dummy. Not home.)

(What do you mean they don't pay me to write 3,000 words of my Awful Space Opera before five? They pay me to sit at a desk and look alert and professional. It's the same thing.)

(Well, no, I am not looking alert and professional. I’m looking like I’m about to fall out of this chair and there’s a distinct possibility that  anyone who walks through the door can see down my shirt. I’d check, but that would involve lifting my weight off of my elbow.)

Haha—now it’s almost three hundred words. Only 2,700 to go!

But seriously—I’m going to work on the Awful Space Opera, and today’s episode is going to be pretty darn autobiographical. Lessee, here goes:

Nell awoke with a start. (See, this is why I keep telling you people the Awful Space Opera is Awful. If I write nonfiction, like the above, even if it’s mainly focused on me being paid to write a terrible novel while being too lazy to prevent official visitors from looking down my shirt, it’s fine. I mean, no one’s going to offer me a Nobel Prize, but as writing goes, I’m okay. As long as I stick to essays, freelance article queries which will be retroactively rejected, blog posts, etc. Switch to fiction, and, as you can see, I cannot write five words without three of them being clich├ęs. "Awoke"? Who says that? "A start"? I’m not even going to dignify that one with a response.)

"Nell awoke with a start." Ahem. Now comes more words.

Yaa—look! Almost five hundred!

Which is beside the point.

"Nell awoke with a start." Ummm….

Badal and Donan were still arguing about planetary research, but Donan was starting to tire. He really was still pretty ill. Nell still didn't like him, but now had to suffer the additional unpleasantness of feeling guilty about it. You really can’t hate someone who’s almost been mauled to death by giant rats. It’s not done.

Nell kept drifting off to sleep at the most inconvenient times. There didn’t seem to be any help for it [see what I mean?—ed.], other than giving up his nightly vigils [eaaaarrghh, seriously woman!], and that he just wasn’t willing to do.

But the exhaustion was taking a toll on his health. He had been fighting a cold all week, and now, as his eye caught the last rays of the sun through the window, he felt the shooting pain of the beginning stages of a migraine. [I read somewhere, just the other day, someone's advice on writing—no, wait, it was this lecture I went to Monday night, no wonder I’m so tired, and they were saying you know, it's nonsense, having to use the active voice all the time, you've got to incorporate the passive for balance. That’s totally right of course. Or it was. I just used up the entire world's supply of acceptable use of passive voice in that last sentence, and now there's none left for the rest of you to use. Ever again.]

Of course, he could avoid the migraine by not being greedy and refusing to take an unpaid sick day to get over his cold by taking a nap, but he was sick of being a temp who doesn't get sick days didn't want to be reprimanded when he was supposed to be keeping an eye on Donan, even though Badal was there, [ed. note—I realize I've said repeatedly that this book is awful, but I would like to point out that this febile attempt is more awful than most. Is that really how you spell febile?Haha—not even close.

I need a day off like a fish needs an underwater bicycle that has a propeller and electrocutes sharks.]

Eight hundred words! And it's not even four o'clock!


It's impossible to get any kind of work flow going when people keep interrupting you to discuss the likelihood that the crazy chick who keeps calling will actually show up in person or to ask is this where the undergrad research meeting is being held (it's not) or drop off the agenda for the invention awards ceremony on Tuesday.

Do I need to date stamp and log the agenda for the invention awards ceremony on Tuesday? Apparently yes.

"Nell looked back on better days—days before the Osomnion was destroyed, days when the most stressful decision before him was whether or not to date-stamp and log a duplicate astrometeorological report, or just through it in the trash. [Yes, I did just write "through" instead of "throw." My head hurts.] He could hardly believe he had once longed for adventures, for the opportunity to explore unknown planets, to learn about alien cultures, to meet new friends and influence people.

Not really sure where that sentence was going.

Hey look—wait for it, wait for it…

Wait for it…

Keep waiting…

Just a little bit longer…


And it’s three minutes to till four.

Should I explain why I’m insisting on writing three thousand words today? Perhaps I should.

See, it’s like this: I used to write articles for my student newspaper in college. It was awful.

My basic journalistic process went like this: Receive assignment on Monday. Is that how you spell receive? Hey, I got that one!

So, yeah—Receive assignment on Monday. Procrastinate. Procrastinate some more. Focus on classes, which were easy, compared to journalism. Procrastinate.

Finish last class on Friday afternoon, return to dorm, buy horrible donut sticks from snack machine—as encouragement—then go sit in the dorm lounge with a phone and a notebook, and procrastinate a little bit more.

Call source. (My sources were nearly always available on a Friday afternoon. This is because Jesus loves me more than you.) Ask questions, take notes. Hang up phone, wonder why a nutjob with an irrational phobia of making phone calls would ever choose to pursue a career as a journalist.

Go upstairs. Turn on computer. Stare at screen for two hours. Write, painstakingly, approximately three words a minute, until notes have turned into five hundred words. Go back and write lede.

Hand in story ten minutes after deadline.

This process remained the same after college, as I attempted to build a pathetic portfolio of dreadful freelance articles written for my hometown paper for free. I frequently questioned my life choices. I seemed to loathe my chosen profession.

Then, after fiddling around and being terrible at other things—childcare, education, office management—I was mysteriously offered a job at a newspaper, based on my pathetic portfolio, and I accepted. I started out by coming in early and staying late, and working through lunch, and taking no breaks, but I got all my stories done. I discovered, fairly quickly, that when I had way more assignments to complete than I had time my telephone phobia faded. Apparently there’s something to that old "face your fears" nonsense.

And, after about four months, I suddenly had no trouble writing my stories. Once I finished the interviews and had all the notes I needed, writing a news article became easy-peasy. The only thing that slowed me down was my typing speed, and that got better too. I started coming in late, and leaving early, and surfing the internet a lot in between.

Fast forward to today. Actually, not today—something more like two months ago. A young friend was complaining about the workload in her journalism classes. I, wanting to become a patronizing elderly nag as soon as possible, if not sooner, told her that if she felt that way, she should actually start trying to write even more each day than what was required. Because that's the only thing to break the metaphorical sound barrier between being a journalism student and being an assembly-line-style newspaper hack, which is, of course, her ultimate dream.

And I tried to calculate the average of how much I was putting out each day before I hit my stride as just such a hack, and I think it was about three thousand words a day. And I remembered that when I'm writing fiction, even now, even 125,594 words into Ye Olde Awful Space Opera, it's just torment, like, practically physical pain.

And I had an epiphany. (Did I ever tell you I was almost named Epiphany? No? Maybe some other time)

The epiphany was this: If I can just write three thousand words of fiction every day, maybe I can get over that hump again—maybe, just maybe, it will become easy.

This contradicts everything ever said by every successful writer ever. But I'm trying to do it anyway.

Maybe it will be different for me. Maybe I, and only I, can make it easy.

One thousand five hundred words.


Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Resurrection Man

I should bring someone back from the dead.

Yep, I’m totally bringing someone back from the dead. No idea who yet. But I have killed off a lot of characters, so I do have options. 

Suddenly, this writing thing seems a lot less dull.

See, what I can do is, I can have like everyone get captured by the bad guys, and then it’s like, whoa, all is totally lost. And then—bam! Someone you haven’t heard from in months is back! And he/she/it is here to totally save the day!

And you’re all like, Whoa. Major plot twist. I did not see that coming.


Thursday, September 5, 2013

Enough serious writing stuff. Cracked has identified six real-life superheroes!

Yes yes yes, this article is over a year old, but I didn't see it until now, therefore it's news.

Presenting... Electric Man! Or, that sounds like he gives off electricityElectroImmuno Man!*

"Everybody's reaction to electricity is a little different; it's influenced by everything from how thick you are, to how moist your skin is, to other changes in body chemistry. Xiangang appears to be an outlier on the high end of the scale. According to testing, he has a resistance seven to eight times greater than the average human being, which grants him the ability to handle live wires without safety equipment, though, again, it behooves us to ask why in the hell he'd want to."

But wait, there's more! The Human Ice Cube! Marathon, the Eternal Runner! The true Last Samurai, who brings a sword to a gunfight, and wins!

Before you ask, I rigorously fact-checked the dude slicing a speeding bullet BB in half by googling "Isao Machii hoax." He's clean. 

Read the whole thing.

*Marvel executives, leave a comment & I'll put you in touch with my agent.

Expectations vs. that other thing

It’s funny, how nothing ever matches your expectations. You go somewhere new; the things you expect to love are boring and the things you expect to hate are okay. You start a new job, and realize you like the humdrum bits better than the big exciting projects.

When I first started writing, I had this odd idea that dialogue would be easy—I carry on conversations all the time, how hard could writing them be? Descriptive prose, now that would be hard. 

How could you possibly really and truly convey the jagged, black latticework of bare wintery twigs against a sunset? (As ‘jagged, black latticework,’ apparently.) How could you explain that a character’s face was somehow ugly and beautiful at the same time? 

A picture is worth a thousand words—do I need at least a thousand words to set every scene?

Well, as it turns out, dialogue, even to someone who babbles compulsively, is hard. It comes out wooden, dry, and not remotely like what any real person has ever actually said. Describing the scene is easy. Which is good, because when you decide to set your story on an imaginary world, you do really need to flesh out what it looks like. I can always slash it down to something concise in draft three.

Plus, if I keep rambling on about the color of the ducks (dark brown, with pink wings), I may eventually figure out what the people ought to be saying.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013


So—for the past few weeks, I’ve been stuck.

(And also, from your perspective, absent. But never mind about that. I’m back now.)

The villain of the piece, the guy I threw in at the beginning just to make everything go wrong, the one whose motivation and personality were supposed to just come together over time—well, he didn’t.

I’ve tried switching to other projects, which is, as you all know, my go-to problem solver. I’ve tried making up random stuff—after all, the Awful Space Opera was born out of making up random stuff, so it should continue to grow that way, right? But somehow it doesn’t. It’s like trying to turn stem cells into a new eyeball instead of a new person. It should work in theory…

I’ve tried distracting myself with blogging. I’ve tried taking breaks.

Really long breaks.

Do I need more coffee? No, this cup’s still half full.

Maybe I should make more for after I finish it though.

And I should eat something.

But nothing has helped. So now, all I do every day is re-read my draft, skimming quickly over the awful villain’s bits and gnashing my teeth. Maybe his motivation is that he wanted to write a great novel and couldn’t, so he just started killing people and taking over the world instead.

Alternately, he could feel like a misunderstood loner. Or maybe it’s something something something Corporate Greed.

Ah well. It will all sort itself out.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Helen Rittelmeyer on AD

I recently discovered Helen Rittelmeyer, who writes careful, thoughtful and highly intelligent posts about not particularly important things. (This, more than anything, is what I look for in a writer—you think, yes, but don’t expect me to.) I particularly liked this one, analyzing the relationship dynamics of Arrested Development.

At this point I can't tell if I've proven that Mitch Hurwitz was definitely inspired by The Brothers Karamazov, or if I've "proven" it the same way your crazy uncle can prove that the Denver Airport is ground zero for the worldwide lizard-people conspiracy. Certainly I wouldn't want to ruin a good joke by taking it too seriously. But if AD is an updated version of TBK, then it's worth asking what updates Hurwitz thought necessary in order to bring the story up to date, apart from the set dressing.

Confession—I've not actually read The Brothers Karamazov. I read all the classics on my parents' bookshelf at the age of nine, lost interest in real literature, and have read nothing but junk since. If they had Dostoevsky, it was kept up really high. But I enjoy Helen's comparison all the same.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Not one of my better days

Writing is boring. Boring and lonely and not fun. This may be the worst job I've ever had, and I've had some doozies. It's just me, the computer and the cat, and my Black Keys Pandora station seems stuck on an endless loop of Jack Johnson clones.

Hah! I 'disliked' a wretched Ben Harper whine and got me some Junior Kimbrough.

I hate when I step away from my computer long enough to have to read a whole chapter before I can remember what the heck is going on.

Honestly, I just hate reading my writing.

And I especially hate when someone like this interrupts my ENTIRELY JUSTIFIED pity party with maturity and well-reasoned optimism, and leaves me with Don't Stop Believin' stuck in my head.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Who Killed Cock Robin?

When I was about four, I had a book of Mother Goose rhymes that was the most beautiful book in the world. Its illustrations were, I think, reminiscent of an illuminated manuscript, with intricate drawings with bright, jewel-like colors done in panels in the margins. I'm not entirely sure, because I didn't learn about illuminated manuscripts until a decade later, and by that time the most beautiful book in the world was long gone.

I can only clearly remember the panels on the "Who Killed Cock Robin" page, that being my favorite at the time.

"Who killed Cock Robin?" "I," said the Sparrow,
"With my bow and arrow, I killed Cock Robin."

"Who saw him die?" "I," said the Fly,
"With my little eye, I saw him die."

I'm not sure how old I was when I received this particular Mother Goose book. I believe I had others. It was most likely given to me when I was pretty young, because I tore the cover off early on and by the age of four, I already couldn't quite remember what it looked like.

"Who caught his blood?" "I," said the Fish,
"With my little dish, I caught his blood."

"Who'll make the shroud?" "I," said the Beetle,
"With my thread and needle, I'll make the shroud."

I spent hours (okay, minutes—time was different then) trying to remember the cover illustration, because I was quite certain it had been the most beautiful book cover in the world. I even—I think—spontaneously cleaned my room once or twice, trying to find it. This probably gave my parents a completely mistaken impression about my level of conscientiousness and work ethic:

"Who'll dig his grave?" "I," said the Owl,
"With my pick and trowel, I'll dig his grave."

Every now and then, I try to find a copy of the book, although I've not done anything more demanding than Google searches so far.

"Who'll be the parson?" "I," said the Rook,
"With my little book, I'll be the parson."

Nursery rhymes make a very useful source of childhood wonder, mainly because they are utterly incomprehensible to their intended audience. What's a parson? What's a trowel? Why are English people under the impression that lark rhymes with clerk?

"Who'll be the clerk?" "I," said the Lark,
"If it's not in the dark, I'll be the clerk."

It would really, really help if I could remember the cover illustration. Why don't you just do an image search for Cock Robin, since it's the one you remember? you ask.

"Who'll carry the link?" "I," said the Linnet,
"I'll fetch it in a minute, I'll carry the link."

I'll just give you a few seconds to think through the flaws in that strategy.

"Who'll be chief mourner?" "I," said the Dove,
"I mourn for my love, I'll be chief mourner."

Actually, out of sheer stubbornness, I did do a search for Cock Robin. I even—with one eye closed in trepidation—turned off Google Safe Search to do it. Nothing. Not even relevant porn.

"Who'll carry the coffin?" "I," said the Kite,
"If it's not through the night, I'll carry the coffin."

"Who'll bear the pall? "We," said the Wren,
"Both the cock and the hen, we'll bear the pall."

I also tried searching for "Goosey Goosey Gander," because I think I can sort of remember one of those panels—the one where the gander kicks the guy down the stairs. A goose in a frock coat is a fairly memorable image.

"Who'll sing a psalm?" "I," said the Thrush,
As she sat on a bush, "I'll sing a psalm."

I vaguely remember reading "Four and Twenty Blackbirds," mostly because so much of it was impossible to understand, but the pictures have faded from my mind.

"Who'll toll the bell?" "I," said the bull,
"Because I can pull, I'll toll the bell."

Perhaps I had a thing for nursery rhymes that were death- and/or bird-themed. Or maybe it's just a coincidence, since so many nursery rhymes are death- and/or bird-themed. The death I get—people are ghouls—but what's with the birds?

All the birds of the air fell a-sighing and a-sobbing,

When they heard the bell toll for poor Cock Robin.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

New Austin impressions

I. Pecan trees in winter: The very best haunted house tree. Knobbly knuckled branches tipped with dead nut shells. They go very well with the psychotic grackle screams. Not to mention the crying-baby doves.

II. Adult Swim: The kind, generous, brilliant, talented and stunningly sexy friend who is letting me camp out in her apartment sleeps all day and stays up all night watching Cartoon Network. Not my favorite shows, but I’ve discovered they make perfect background noise for the writing process. Just amusing enough to keep me from ignoring them completely, but not so engrossing that I quit working altogether.

II.a. I should have a third thing here. I do everything in threes, including criminal charges in hard news ledes. Seriously, if you try hard enough, you can make it fit in every story. Ha ha! Kidding! The facts determine the story! Sensation is for hacks!

III. Ah, yes—the housing market: Every single apartment ad on Craigslist is spam. Every. Single. One.

(Previous posts on moving to Texas can be found here, here, and here.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Oranges & Lemons

Oranges and lemons,
Say the bells of St. Clement's.

You owe me five farthings,
Say the bells of St. Martin's.

When will you pay me?
Say the bells of Old Bailey.

When I grow rich,
Say the bells of Shoreditch.

When will that be?
Say the bells of Stepney.

I do not know,
Says the great bell of Bow.

Here comes a candle to light you to bed,
And here comes a chopper to chop off your head!

(Editor's Note: Today's post was brought to you by Blogger's Block [TM], and the ghoulish children of early modern London.)

Monday, January 7, 2013


So. This has happened.

I’m not sure I can blame my lack of posts and twitterings entirely on the move, but I’m going to anyway. The fact that I didn’t do a Road to Austin: Phase III post, or discuss the realization that the only way I could afford to move was to sell my ancient car, or at least acknowledge New Year’s Eve and develop some appropriate resolutions offends my sense of plot, but I suppose real life never does have a coherent story.

Although I am camped out on a friend’s couch, car-less and unemployed, I have to say I love Austin. Early impressions: (1) Creepy birds, mainly the doves, which sound like a crying baby, and a species of grackle which makes a variety of charming car-alarm noises when excited, which is all the time. (2) Street con artists. I’ve seen my fair share of begging, both here and abroad, but Austin seems to have more than its fair share of able-bodied, sober, perfectly sane, well-dressed and suspiciously articulate beggars, all with a story to tell. This is excellent. My goal in life is to live in a post-apocalyptic movie, but with plumbing, and I think I am getting closer to that point. (3) College students. There are a lot of them, and at some point in the past decade, they apparently began admitting a bunch of twelve-year-olds as freshmen. Bah humbug, get off my lawn, et cetera, et cetera.

Anyway, the important thing is this: About two months ago, I got all wrapped up in selling the car, packing, saying goodbye, repacking, filling out job applications, and packing, and I quit writing, and social media-izing, and as I look at this long, rambling, inarticulate post, I’m thinking maybe I should have stayed quit, but be that as it may, I’m back.

And I’m in Texas. And here I will stay, at least longer than I’ve stayed anywhere else. I am too old to be constantly picking up and moving. Let’s see, I lived in Georgia four years, which was longest, so that means I have to stay in Austin for five, which means 2018. In 2018, there will be a new president, and I will be—gah, old. But whatever happens, I’ll be here.