(This post first appeared on my Patreon page on 24 February. Patrons — even if all they can spare is one thin dollar per month — see my posts first. They also get to see the stories I publish 30 days in advance, plus a FREE .pdf copy, even if I charge for the ebook everywhere else! So you should totally pledge. Seriously. I’m not making a hell of a lot of money doing this (yet!) and the budget is thin, thin, thin — you can see all its ribs, the poor thing. Make my budget happier. Happy, financially secure writers write more writing. Word.)
…so I can put it together better.
I don’t know how many of you know this, but I’m wrapping up an MA in English with a fiction writing concentration. I know, I know — what a huge surprise. It sort of made sense, and the bit of the financial aid that doesn’t go to paying for tuition and books goes toward keeping a roof over our (there are 5 of us stuffed into this little trailer) heads so we have a place to store the computer that I tend to school and work on.
So, in any event, it has been a good ride, and I think my writing is considerably better for the experience.
For my thesis, I am putting together a new collection, and I was working on a story that is part of it.
It was a good story. I liked it. My fellow students and professor liked it. And one of them suggested something (kicking myself — I should have thought of it! See the value of having someone to critique you? Not yet? Read on.) good.
Loosely paraphrased: “good story — but why not start where the action is?”
But how many times have I seen that very basic advice in the blogs and similar from writers and editors and readers?
Tons. (Lesson along the way: there’s a big difference between hearing or reading advice and actually taking it OMG I HAVE THE SUDDEN URGE TO CALL MYSELF NAMES) You probably have too. Now, not every story needs to start in the middle of the action. And “action” is a flexible concept. There’s no combat in my story, and we usually think “someone needs to be trying to kill someone” when we think action. There’s a big expedition to somewhere long-lost and mysterious in this story, and instead of having two scenes of lead-in with their own minor conflicts, I chopped them out and relocated them later in the story. So the “action” is just the characters departing from their origin and launching themselves into the unknown. But it’s more interesting than a slow lead-in, by a long shot. Then the structure cried out for another prelude scene buried later in the story, so I wrote one. And that made the characters, situations, the whole damn world of the story a richer and more interesting place.
The moral of this little story isn’t “always, always, always start in the middle of some form of action.” There are wonderful stories that don’t start that way, and maybe you’ve written and/or read some of them. Great.
The moral is, “don’t be afraid to chop up your story and rearrange the bits to see if it’s better off.” We have word processors. We can cut, copy, and paste. We can save multiple revisions in their own handy little folders. We can print if we want and rearrange pages, scribble all over the thing. Some of us (not me — spend money? I don’t have much of that stuff!) even have cool writer-in-mind software that lets us take a story apart digitally and rearrange it at will just to see how it looks.
Look, we’re creative people. Not just those of us that write fiction, but those of us who read it, too. Relatively few of us humans even read fiction. I think it takes a creative spark to read it and love it enough to come back for more without the whip of a teacher behind us and the carrot of a diploma in front of us. Something like a third of us humans never read a work of fiction again after the required reading of whatever level of education we have is behind us. Another third read “rarely.” That’s roughly what I recall, and I’m probably being optimistic about the numbers.
So being creative people, when we create something, we don’t want to change it. We want to think we have it right the first time, that our initial conception is the right one. We’re tempted to make small changes, not big ones. Not even just to see.
Make some big changes. Maybe you’ll waste some time, but you’ll be playing with something you like anyway — and that’s not a bad thing at all if you’re one to voluntarily sit down and write a story. No matter what you do with that story. Even if you write fiction only for yourself in a locked journal with instructions in your will to burn it after you die, even if you “just” write a little fanfic here and there to share with your friends or on a fan forum, even if you never mean to publish a damn thing.
Because sometimes those experiments with big changes pay off.
So is that all I learned? Nah. I learned a lesson I have to learn over and over again, each time a little better — I hope. I’m a hyperactive person, and I’m distractible. I may or may not meet the definition of ADD or ADHD — whatever I am, hyperactive is what they called it when I was a little tyke in rural Wisconsin in the ’70s. I’m impatient as all hell. I really want stories to come out great just the way I first conceive them. And it has taken practice and experience to get to the point where I’m willing to take my time, even sit on a story for days or weeks until I have fresh eyes to take it out and fiddle with it to see if I can make it better. To get to the point where I have found some balance between the humility it takes to listen to advice and/or consider writing a story a different way, and the ego it takes to say, “hey, this is my world, and I think it’s interesting. Come look at it.”
If I can do it, you probably can too.
I don’t often do news and/or politics here, but for some things I make an exception.
I’ve been sort-of-following the latest trial du jour, the whole nasty mess down in Florida with this Michael Dunn guy who fired a pistol into a carload of teenagers who were playing their music very loud. As far as I can tell, he approached the car to bitch about their music, then decided he felt threatened–probably after being told to bug off–and opened fire on the four teens, killing one.
The jury returned a verdict that damn near made me do a spit-take with my coffee, it was so weird.
They found him guilty of firing a gun into an occupied vehicle. Okay, check. Makes sense.
They found him guilty of three counts of attempted murder for the three teens in the car who were not hit by his gunfire. Check again. Sensible.
They couldn’t arrive at a decision in the case of the kid who was shot and died.
What the hell?
That can’t be right. Let me re-read what I read.
The jury decided Michael Dunn attempted to murder the three kids he shot at and didn’t hit, but can’t figure out if he murdered the one he shot at and killed.
That ranks very, very high on the list of stupid things I’ve heard. Florida jury, did you lose your mind? I wish I could help you find it, you ridiculous people.
‘The one thing successful people never do is quit.’
You see this phrase and variants of it bandied about the inspirational and self-help crowd quite a bit. There’s enough truth in it that it sounds worth repeating—and it is—and a lot of folks do just that. Never surrender. Hang in there. Keep on truckin’. Fall down seven times, get up eight.
It’s good advice. It’s manifestly true that if you never try, you cannot succeed. Or as Heinlein once put it, “Certainly the game is rigged. Don’t let that stop you; if you don’t bet you can’t win.”
I have only one caution regarding the never quit game.
If you don’t give up, it’s still not a guarantee that you will succeed. It’s not a guarantee. A third time: you are not going to get something just because you tried to get it. Even if you try really hard for a long time. There are reasons for this.
You might be trying the wrong way. The story of Buddha is a nice illustration of this. Young Buddha was trying to become enlightened by depriving himself and meditating, and it wasn’t working out. After years of trying, he finally said ‘screw this’, planted himself under a tree and swore not to eat or drink until he became enlightened. As he soon found out, issuing ultimatums is generally a crappy way to get things done, especially when you issue your ultimatum to something as abstract as the entire way that life and the universe work. He passed out, was rescued by some nice folks who nursed him back to health, and he tried again and succeeded.
“So what?” you say. “It only proves your point. He kept at it, and eventually was successful.”
He almost killed himself because he was stubborn. That’s what actually happened. It was only after he GAVE UP AND TRIED A DIFFERENT WAY that he found what he was looking for.
He did get what he was looking for. It wasn’t what he was originally looking for in the beginning of the story. In the beginning of the story he wasn’t looking to understand life, the universe, and everything. Nor was he looking to become a teacher. He was trying to square the worldview of his sheltered upbringing with the suffering that he became aware of, for his own personal understanding. He didn’t get it the way he was looking for it, either. He had a very firm idea of how to get what he wanted and it damn near killed him.
‘Never give up’ is only part of the story. You also need to be open to finding different ways to achieve your goals. You need to be ready to discover that you’re doing it all wrong, and be ready to change your approach. You need to be ready and willing to understand that you might not know it all now, you’re going to learn more as you go, and you will need to incorporate that learning into your efforts.
You need to understand that your goal at the start and your goal later on may be two different things. You might end up with an entirely different goal and an entirely different achievement than the one you were seeking when you started.
There’s more than one way to give up. Stubbornly clinging to old misunderstandings, old ways, and old goals is one of them.
You might want to try going around. Straight through just ain’t gonna work.
I just minutes ago drove through an intersection near my home. There had obviously been an accident there very recently. How do I know this?
Because, although the stricken cars are gone, there are big hunks of metal and plastic littering the intersection. They are right in the path of traffic. Perfectly placed to puncture tires.
Public servants and city employees of Norfolk: I know some of you care. But when I see something like this, this ‘screw cleaning up, it’s not my tires that will be punctured by this trash’ attitude…
…how am I supposed to BELIEVE you give a damn?
Here’s my little blogging delay, 9 lbs and 1 oz of brand new baby boy named Cuinn. He was born late on the night of the 17th and we’ve been busy ever since adjusting to his new presence. We’re not the only ones adjusting. His two big brothers, 15 and 2, are adjusting as well.
On the writing front, I’ve managed a few hundred words on a promising little short story about aliens, death, love, duty, and flowers—working title, “The Flowers of Dawn”. I know that’s a sadistically tiny teaser for anything, but I’m not sure where it’s going yet and most of my attention is on, you know, domestic stuff. I’m also not saying more about that story because as those of you who write probably know, sometimes a promising story stalls and goes into the trunk or gets cannibalized into other stories, taken apart into ideas and recycled.
But that’s enough about writing. I just wanted to do the thing all the cool new parents are doing and tell you how awesome I think our new baby is.
He’s awesome. And he still has that new baby smell.
Aren’t you jealous?
You may have noticed that I haven’t posted anything in an unusually long time.
I have a perfectly good… PERFECTLY good, I say… explanation.
We’ve been expecting a baby any minute now, and have been convinced, constantly, for two weeks, that the little guy was going to make his appearance ANY MOMENT.
He’s a tricky little scamp.
We’re in the hospital right now, me and my wife and my teen (step)son, waiting as labor is being induced. Our 2 year old is with trusted friends until his little brother is born.
I’ve been too distracted to write much of anything. Now, somehow, sitting in this room watching the contractions go by and realizing there are probably a couple or few more hours to go, I can write.
The human mind is a funny thing. Now that it’s happening, I’m calm. For the previous two weeks when nothing was happening, I was a nervous wreck. Go figure.
What do you do when you get a little blister in a big blister on your heel? I guess I have a detail to use next time I write a story about hiking.
So how did this happen? Spending this last week in D.C. for school, I have been living on the cheap. And that means walking and being thankful for the Metro rail system. But it’s still 6 blocks to the Metro station, then 8 blocks between where I get off the train and the hotel this week long school event is taking place in. On the way back a free shuttle bus takes me back to the Metro, so it’s only 6 blocks of walking going ‘home’. That’s still 20 blocks a day plus whatever walking I do to find something for lunch.
That’s not outrageous at all. But it’s been a while since I’ve done any serious walking on a daily basis. The feet aren’t as tough as they used to be. My shoes aren’t terrible, but they’re on the old side and they rub a bit.
So there’s my complaining for the week. My poor abused heel is suffering. I’m not totally irresponsible and picked up a pack of heavy duty blister bandaids the second day. But I’m still totally looking forward to getting home and putting my feet up.
Then we’ll see if I feel like writing a story about walking.