Monday, November 21, 2011

Don't change what works!

This has been the toughest Nanowrimo that I've faced since 2002. That was the year that I moved out of state at the end of October and caught pneumonia. I didn't even start till November 25th. When I did, I still got up to 25,000 by the end of the month. It frustrated me no end to have a year without a win on my profile.

The bison doesn't have anything to do with this article. The way I drew it does. I sketched it with pastel pencils, dropping back to a style of drawing I've used with charcoal pencils or pastel pencils or colored pencils all my life. It's an animal, a subject I've had more practice with than any other. The only easier animal would've been a cat. It came out well because I'm so used to animal anatomy and pencil sketching that it would've been very hard to mess it up.

My results trying to draw that bison in Sketchbook Mobile would not be as effective. Let's give that a try. I have my phone right here.

Better than I thought. At least you can tell it's a cartoon buffalo. I finger painted that with a medium I've barely started to use, one that has no tactile feedback. My finger slides over glass and I can't actually tell which point on the pad of my finger creates the line. It's not on a par with the cool one I did in pastel pencils.

Don't change what works.

It's okay to experiment, try different things. I'm not saying not to experiment. Just know when to abandon a failed trial. Sketchbook Mobile wasn't a failed trial. At least I got a cartoon out of it and with enough practice, I may be able to get something that looks like a pen drawing.

My worst, most painful year in Nanowrimo started with a failed trial. I had the ambitious idea that I could both write and edit my novel in November. This would've been fine if I'd started off by writing the book and didn't look down till I got those two magic words: The End.

What works is to make little edit notes in the synopsis and keep writing as if the changes were made. Typing "I'll probably have to cut that drippy foreword" doesn't break my process.

Going over it again at the end of every chapter for a slow careful line edit does. Worrying about the beauty of each sentence and whether I've used any unnecessary words does not win Nanowrimo. Letting out the Inner Editor and Inner Creator at exactly the same time, while also painting and drawing, led to a train wreck.

It let in the side of my mind that isn't supposed to be involved in writing at all. The Inner Censor. The social censor, the worrier that constantly weighs who might or might not be hurt or offended by this or that in the story. That turns the creative process into a democracy - and the only thing that creates is literary oatmeal. Nothing can ever be bland enough to satisfy the Inner Censor.

Best thing to do is keep your head down and don't write at all.

So many of those voices of the past kept telling me not to be a writer at all. Both parents. All four grandparents. Most teachers including English teachers. Almost all ex lovers including the one that was a thirteen year marriage in all but legality. "If you ever got published, I couldn't stand it. You'd be insufferable. I'll leave you if you ever get published."

Well, truth be told, that ex already left me over a decade and a half ago. Since when is the risk of losing a relationship I don't have a good reason not to finish a novel?

These things aren't rational. Time does not exist for the Inner Censor. At least one nun whom I know to be dead would be angry and debate me into the ground about what I'm doing in this novel, the themes and ideas within it. She'd have found ways within my own ethics to challenge me about why I'm writing it and why I'm writing it the way I am and every bit of content in it. Heck, she isn't even the worst, though I do sometimes compare her to Gaius Helen Mohiam from Dune. At least with her, she only wanted to get me to question it, not necessarily back down. Just know where my integrity stands and why.

I'm writing about the Inner Censor because philosophical nuns, disapproving family members, friends and romantic partners are not just my problem. They happen to almost every writer. Heck, Version B happens to those rare and lucky few writers who got labeled as Talented when they were toddlers, surrounded by grownups who were excited to have a writer in the family and encouraged every time they picked up a pencil or got an idea.

Let's call that lucky writer John-Boy. You remember The Waltons? I hated that narrator. I admired him, because a lot of his voice-overs came from good books the series was based on and they were good writing. John-Boy, obviously an authorial self portrait, was a darn good writer. What I hated him for was that every single person in his school and family took it for granted that he was a writer.

They didn't treat him special for it or exempt him from chores. They just took it for granted as his strength, like the tall kid was the tall kid or the good cook was the good cook. The family was nauseatingly, unrealistically nice to each other. Or maybe out there in the world, families existed where people didn't turn around and take out everything bad that happened, ever, on their nearest and dearest, seeking to cripple them emotionally and keep them dependent. There are such things as happy families.

There are even more middling ones with bad days and good days. It's not like the show lacked conflict.

I look back at John-Boy today and stop to think, maybe the original author of the novels didn't get that benign acceptance of his goals. Maybe he got kicked in the teeth as often as I did, as often as any of us do. Maybe he slipped in John-Boy's golden happy emotional situation regarding writing as a wish fulfillment - one little thing that wouldn't distract from the real struggles against poverty and the risky hard life of a farming family that was better than real. Maybe John-Boy was a discreet Mary Sue, kept under the radar because he had a real function in the story.

For all I know, in the place and time the story was based on, the minister sermonized against frivolities like wasting time reading novels or worse, writing them. Scrutinized fiction as one of those vanities that shouldn't be encouraged. Maybe the author did hear "Nobody makes a living writing books" and "Quit wasting your time with that, you lazy bum, there's real work that needs to be done" and all the rest of the poisonous canon.

Someone with a supportive family can be armored against it, cushioned against it. That bears its own risks. What happens when they adored your heartfelt nature stories and hung on every word... and the thing inside every creative person rears its individual head to send the writer plunging into the abyss of Lovecraftian horror? "John-Boy, this isn't like your other stories. It's creepy. I don't like it, it gives me the shivers. I wanted the little boy to live. Why'd you kill him? I'll never get to sleep tonight. Ugh! Don't do anything like this again!"

That's the side that'll slap even those whose writing is approved and loved. Everyone's got an opinion. It would take more than just loving your writer child to reach a level of acceptance that allows the writer child to turn in the Green Lantern knockoff instead of the beautiful literary accomplishment you expected. Or a soppy romance. Or a cheesy horror story. Anything that's in the genre the parents/friends/partners got used to and loved is at risk.

I worked on "Trouble in the City," my second Magical Cats book, which turned cool and started developing echoes of Armistead Maupin because I wrote it in San Francisco and the setting is a big part of magical cats books. It was coming out well. Even the Inner Editor was humming along polishing what looked like good rough prose before the line edit. Plot moving along at a gorgeous pace, leaping from scene to scene as lithe as a - well, as a cat, really. I had my own cat Ari coming up on my lap to shed Cat Hairs of Inspiration and talk to me about it in his little high kitten voice.

It got harder to work on at every session. It was coming out well. Going back to it at all was like pulling teeth. I had panic attacks. Flashbacks to my childhood. Grinding hours and days of writer's block. I finally got fed up when I procrastinated about six days in a row and ate up all my Virtual Days. I fell behind twice.

I finally understood what's wrong.

If it ain't broke, don't fix it. My method is to write the rough draft first, accepting it with the unequivocal joy of a new kitten. I can make notes or fix typos as I go, part of the rhythm, but I don't question that the point of this draft is just to find out what happens in the story. Even when I edited this year's Three Day Novel, I didn't start editing till after I'd reached the end and the draft was complete.

Mixing those processes let in the Inner Censor again. At the same time I was working on getting my Street Artist License, going through the last round of necessary hurdles, going out, cashing Google checks, going here and there to offices, coming home too tired to create anything. Losing days to getting sick because I do earn my check for that day job of Being A Cripple. Any physical activity is going to cost me a lot more in time, pain and body energy than writing books.

It got to be too much. I couldn't keep up. I was living in the same physical state as I did when I was a little kid with undiagnosed congenital deformities trying to keep up with everything children are expected to do. The horrors crept in.

I broke out of it with something crazy. I set aside "Trouble in the City" and started another novel. I remembered that only a couple of months ago, I wrote a novel over 50,000 words over a three day weekend. Maybe starting over, from scratch, would get my method back on track and I could save the magical cats book by writing a new one first. It's not like I haven't done more than one book some Novembers.

I gave up on the editing goal. I formally renounced it in the Nanowrimo forums. Let go of it and told the tale, just as I'm telling it in this blog. Like learning the Dvorak keyboard, November is not the best time for dangerous experiments. Do what works for you.

Forget about anything that has a steep learning curve until you've mastered that new thing to the level you can just do what you want with it.

I'm sure by next year, when Sketchbook Mobile has been my doodle pad for over a year, I'll be happily doing quick animal studies in it with or without a stylus. It'll be as familiar as pastel pencils are now. Or the year after. At some point it won't be the difficult new thing, it'll be one of the many familiar well-used tools in my creative workbench. I'll be giving myself a stretch in some other direction. It could be materials or technique or subjects. I'll know when I get there.

Start to learn the Dvorak keyboard in December and next year's Nanowrimo will go better than ever. Your hands will hurt less and your word count will be at least as good. Two years after, your word counts will astonish you because you're typing faster and easier. I can honestly say the Dvorak keyboard layout doubled my output.

Just don't start it on November 1st.

I may someday be able to keep a rhythm of "Write when I get up, clean it up in the second session that day." There were days it went well. Not till I'm used to it, so used to both the process of editing and that schedule that it's as familiar as Dvorak is now. Until then, I'm better off writing by the seat of my pants.

I've also got to consider that I might never really get it, any more than I find outlines useful. When I've got a good method that churns out readable very long stories every time I sit down to do it, trying to switch to someone else's doesn't necessarily improve them or my production. I did use a full outline method once. The book was no worse than my other books but no better.

I just didn't enjoy writing it as much and didn't get that happy immersion I'm used to. It felt like work every step of the way. That's what this was like. Instead of spending my time with the cats and tarot readers happily ignoring my money worries, I wound up putting my nose to the grindstone and working hard every time I sat down to it. Any distraction looked better. I preferred watching television. For me that's a biggie. I'm not much into TV.

By the deepest part of the block I couldn't even draw either. That's how far my creative side shut down. There are some things in this world that you can't do just by dragging yourself to work no matter how you feel. That's effective in office work, factory work, maybe even physical work as long as the skills are reflex. You can do things on automatic.

Writing novels is not one of those things.

So when I started from scratch, the best direction I could take turned into another leap. From childhood I always wanted to write Horror. I loved Poe. I loved Kafka, a novelist who might be the hard core China White heroin of the horror genre - so terrifying that it makes chainsaw massacres, living dolls and zombie apocalypse look like a playground romp. Kafka can make you depressed.

Kafka can also pull you through depression if life is that depressing yet you recognize that Franz Kafka knew how bad it could get. That he had those feelings. That he either was or knew people who felt as bad as you did.

So I was depressed, I was scared, I was getting panic attacks and that part of me that writes stories started giggling. "It's a wonderful nightmare. Jump right in and write it!" Off I went with a ten year old protagonist. I even made him a writer character, though I toned down the conflict about his writing by tossing in other, bigger conflicts. The evil pedophile priest is someone I grabbed from the news. There have been a lot of them making the news, not just recently but as far back as I can remember.

He had to be larger than life. So I brought in things larger than my life and then tossed in the supernatural. It's got an echo of The Evil Seed classic story too - the one where innocent little children wind up unspeakable monsters because they gain power over adults and have no judgment at all. I made them time twins. I set them loose, a good twin and an evil twin, both of them sketchy self portraits.

The bad boy is who I'd have been if I'd done every mean thing I wanted to growing up in pain. The good boy is closer to who I actually was, though he's given me a few surprises due to changes. As usual, the I-Guy, both of them, stopped being me as soon as they hit the page. I left out the birth defects, that's a biggie. They're just small and puny, undernourished.

It's a book I would have devoured at ten. At ten, I wouldn't have cared how it came out. I would - I'd have been as passionately engaged as I am. But I would also have happily accepted a dark ending. If both boys got destroyed and damned with their souls sucked out through their nostrils by the end of the book, it would have been okay as long as it was the right ending. If the bad twin killed the good twin and strolled away laughing to start a series, that would've been okay too.

Anything can happen. The safety net is gone. I stick to happy endings most of the time even if some of them can be described as "Whew, at least we survived the book." I'm not Kafka and there's a streak of Bradbury sweetness that comes in too.

It hasn't ended yet. I have another 12,500 words or so to the end and that's if it's exactly 50,000 words, which I doubt. I think it'll weigh in at about 50-60k. It doesn't have to be a long Horror novel. It just is one, the farther I get into it, the more horrific. Some ugly things are going to happen in the next chapter and the Good Twin has just been good in a tragic way - his strengths are his weaknesses. He saved the Bad Twin a couple of chapters ago.

If there are deaths from the Bad Twin, he's going to see the blood on his hands. Provided he lives, right now he's in the hospital with an injury caused by using the healing magic. I don't know what'll happen. I'll find out when I open the file for Chapter 15 and start writing it down.

When it's done, when I write The End on it, I'll open up all the chapters of the magical cats book again and finish it. This is like a purge. I'm back in the rhythm of writing the way I know how and it'll be as easy to pick up Trouble again as it is to pick up The Hunger Games again at the end of a 16k day and enjoy another dark book that keeps me in the dark gritty mood.

Tip: reading a novel that has nothing to do with your concept and may not be the same genre, but shares a mood with it, may help fill the well. It can also give the rough prose a little more polish, if it's a good one. Just like looking at Old Masters in the museum helps me paint my own impressionist landscapes better, reading good novels will kick up the quality of my prose.

Look for unexpected bestsellers, books that broke out of their genre. Look for the ones that become a compelling reread instead of something that was a cool fad during its day in the sun but forgettable later. Some favorites that keep me on form: Silence of the Lambs. Harry Potter books. Stephen King's masterwork, the Dark Tower series, plus the expanded version of The Stand and of course, Misery.

I'm happy to say The Hunger Games just got onto that short list. I bought the trilogy on sale because everyone was talking about it and it was cheap. There's a reason it became that big a hit, the author never lets up. The protagonist may be a teenage girl but she is not shallow, she is not normative, she isn't boring and she sure isn't weak. I like a strong protagonist. I like to meet characters who stand up to hard lives at least as well as I do. I tend to take heart from that.

I don't know which, if either of my boys will live through this book. It doesn't matter as long as the story comes out right. I went over to the dark side and I'm writing the stuff that kept me sane when I was a scared little kid with too many real things to cry about no matter who said I was crying over nothing.

The only way to regain myself was to face that pain.

Writing is a dangerous profession. We go up on the tightwire of the mind. We reach deep into our own souls for the stories that reach other people. It doesn't matter who I am or where I learned about pain and fear. It's there for everyone. Pain Level Ten is the worst you've ever had. That's its literal definition in the pain clinics.

No matter who you are, there is a Pain Level Ten. There's some unendurable moment in your past where the pain blotted out everything and you could not handle it, no matter how strong you were, nothing could break through that pain. There is always a point in every life where the pain wins.

Emotional pain level ten happens too. Some people say "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger." Not always, sometimes it just catches you up in bad weather and trips you when something you would've been able to outrun is on your tail. Some people say "You're never given any challenge beyond what you can take."

That guilt trips the victims. People get challenges in life they can't take all the time. It's cruel to single out the ones that break and talk about them as if they're unworthy to live. A lot of people do well in life because they're lucky and nothing so vast that it would break them ever impinged on them.

When I lived and worked in Chicago, a suicide jumped from a thirty story building. He was wealthy, wearing an expensive suit. His shoes, fancy ones that must have cost hundreds of dollars, flew every which way. I heard various stories about why he jumped. I saw his hand, a strong well shaped hand, sticking out from under the tarp they put on him, reaching up with long healthy fingers. He might have changed his mind on the way down.

One of the stories was that his father in law was angry with him and they had a fight on the phone. Another was that he'd just heard that he lost his job. Another was that he lost a parent. People break over different things. I think about him sometimes, envied by so many people, lucky all his life until the day whatever was more than he could face drove him out that top-story window.

Life's what it is. We read stories and tell them to make sense of it, to understand the world around us, know what the risks are. We turn to escape fiction to set it aside for a while and then to look at it from a different angle. Maybe come up with something inside that makes it possible to keep going. Or more, to keep going and be the kind of person who'd split a piece of bread in Auschwitz.

So in those moments when you think you're not good enough, remember that no one else is either. Think about the characters you love who wouldn't exist if you don't finish the book and get it out to your readers. More than that, think about your core reader. The one who's going to be reading it on the bus and have a little more resilience, a little more heart, a better chance not to do something stupid when it gets too hard out there.

They were there for me, all those writers of my childhood, living and dead. Bradbury. Ellison. Kafka. Poe. King and Rowling. I have to add to the stream. I can't just sit by and do nothing, it's my job to pick it up and do my share of it.

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