Tell a Good Story

It’s been a good week for me, writing-wise. I finished the first draft of my outline (woooo! More on that next week). I got great feedback on it. I started what I think could be an interesting short story. All in all, feel like I’m making progress.

So let’s end the week on a good night — a tiny bit of Friday food for thought:

“We sat around this table talking about every possible kind of ending,” Gilligan says. “Sometimes you start talking really macro. Like, ‘What kind of responsibility do we have to find a moral in all this?’ ‘Is this a just universe that he lives in, or is it a chaotic universe which is more in keeping with the one we seem to live in?’ ‘Is there really karma in the world? Or is it just that the mechanisms, the clockwork, of the universe is so huge and subtle in its operation that we don’t see karma happening?’ We talk about all that stuff, and then, at a certain point, you stop and say, ‘Let’s just tell a good story.'”

That’s Vince Gilligan, talking about writing the end of Breaking Bad. If you have the time, check out the entire GQ article, “The Last Stand of Walter White” — definitely worth your time (Bryan Cranston seems like the kind of guy I’d want to grab a beer with).

And at the very least — that’s some pretty damn good advice to kick off the weekend. Let’s just tell a good story.

Sentences That Stick

Cold it was, and dark, when the vision came to her, for in the far north daylight was a gray dim time in the middle of the day that came, and went, and came again: an interlude between darknesses. — Neil Gaiman, American Gods

My friend Hannah and I were talking the other day about sentences — perfectly crafted sentences. The ones that make you fall in love with the author on the spot, regardless of the rest of the book. The rest of the writing could be crap, the author could be a total jerk — but you’ll always remember that one, breath-catching sentence.

(Side note: this makes me think of Hemingway’s relationship with Fitzgerald. A Moveable Feast has a long chapter depicting how annoying Hemingway first found Fitzgerald when they met. Then Fitzgerald gives him a copy of The Great Gatsby: “When I had finished the book I knew that no matter what Scott did, nor how he behaved, I must know it was like a sickness and be of any help I could to him and try to be a good friend.” Good writing, man — you’ll forgive a lot.)

Now, it’s one thing to be in awe of a sentence. But of course, as a writer, I want to study the Why. I want to know what makes that sentence tick and how to emulate it. Dissect it, name its components, do it myself.

The other writers are probably chuckling right now, because the fact of the matter is, it doesn’t always work that way. You can’t always pinpoint exactly why a sentence transcends its basic mechanics and works on a higher level. It speaks to you at the right place, at the right time. There’s the nutshell.

That Neil Gaiman quote — from American Gods, which I just re-read in anticipation of a Neil Gaiman talk tonight (!!!) — is one that’s hard to pinpoint. When I came upon it, I stopped and re-read it three times. Something about it is just beautiful to me. But when I sit down and try to analyze it — it all falls apart. Yes, it has a nice rhythm (“far north daylight” and “gray dim time” sync up nicely), but there’s nothing totally out of the ordinary there. Maybe it’s because I live somewhat north, and know what those long grey days are like. But that doesn’t really explain my gut reaction to it, either. No, if I try to break it down too much, it loses its magic. Better to just read and appreciate.

So how about you? Are there sentences that have ensnared you, that stick with you, that you read over and over again? Let’s share. I’m always greedy for more.

Eff Excuses

Whatever happens, stop blaming other people for your failures. Stop complaining. Stop dicking around. Start doing that thing you want to do and do it with all the love you can fling into it. – Chuck Wendig, “It’s Half-Past ‘You Should Quit Writing’ O’Clock”

This quote has been rolling around my mind-grapes ever since I read it last week (side note: if you’re a writer, and not reading Chuck Wendig‘s Terrible Mind’s blog — get on it). There are all sorts of inspirational quotes in the world — ranging from the touchy-feely to a kick-in-the-pants — and usually? They don’t do much for me. But this one jumped out at me and hasn’t let go.

They say timing is everything, and I blame timing with this one. You guys, I realized the other day that I’ve been working on my current book for two years.

Let me repeat that.

Two years. And that’s not like, “Ooooh I’ve been working on this book for two years and am on my third rewrite now.” No, it’s “I’ve been working on this book for two years and arghdammit haven’t finished the first draft.” Which…yikes. That’s embarrassing. And before you say, “Well, this famous author took ten years to write her book!” — yes. It does happen. But there are also authors who finish first drafts in six months. So I think my excuses are thin.

Other excuses I could throw out into the universe? Well, I’ve been working full-time for those entire two years. I got married, bought a house, did freelance work… you know, been busy.

But you know what else? I am so tired of excuses. There are a million reasons NOT to do something. In fact, there are usually very few good reasons TO do something — especially write a book. It’s not really a get-rich-quick scheme (or you know, ANY scheme involving the words “get rich”). It’s easy to find reasons not to sit down and write.

And I am tired of those reasons. Yes, I’ve been pretty good about writing for half an hour on most days. But why isn’t it every day? Why is 30 minutes my meager limit? I need to up my game, I need to nut up and sit down and stop letting myself off the hook.

I’m challenging myself to finish the first draft by summer. Two years is too long. I’m finishing the damn thing.

What have you been putting off? Want to join me in ditching the excuses? Think of all the shit we can get done if we just shut up and do it.

The Writer’s Door

Fun fact! I attend a writing group that meets once a month. Monthly deadlines are a useful weapon in combating sloth-like tendencies. It’s a rather ragamuffin group of experienced writers and amateurs, men and women, poets and prose writers. An odd mix, perhaps, but I find that mix provides interesting feedback.

I’m currently working on a story (book? novel?) that is proving to be MUCH longer than originally anticipated. Or perhaps more accurately — it’s taking me much longer to write than anticipated. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is somewhat maddening when you’re in the middle of it, slouching towards Bethlehem.

Overall, I’m pretty shy about my writing — which translates to never letting people read it. Which, you know, doesn’t work if you’re a writer. Being in a writing group helps me get over that hangup since, you know, the whole point is to have other people read your work.

This means that my group has read my current work-in-progress, section by section, over the past…ugh, almost two years. I’m embarrassed to admit it’s been that long. They’ve been along on the journey, seen the plot develop, the characters come into their own. They’re seeing the guts of the beast, as it were.

Some writers are FIRM believers in the “closed door” policy. I’m calling it this based on Stephen King’s advice in On Writing:

Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.

The idea being that you need to get through the entire first draft — the initial creative process — without any input or adulteration from the outside world.

There’s merit there. I’m normally a fan of the “closed door” policy. You can let out the crazy and let that freak flag fly. In fact, this is the first book that I’ve allowed people to read as it’s being written.

And the result of my “open door” policy? Too early to tell. I can see how it would be distracting for some — if your story doesn’t have firm footing, having other writers chime in could probably sway your original intent. But it is useful to have someone point out a sticky plot point early on, the various inconsistencies that come with any first draft. I feel like I’m able to correct some things earlier on in the game. I guess the only way I’ll know for sure if this “open door” policy has worked out is after the whole damn thing is written.

Fellow writers — and, hey, other creative types, too, as I’m sure this applies — what’s your policy? Do you like that door open or shut? Do you think outsiders can derail the creative process, or is it guided by some internal source that can’t be swayed?

Temptation, Distraction & Nick Offerman

One of my tips is get a hobby [….] putting your phone down and doing something with your hands, so that at the end of two hours you have a tangible result to your time. You’ve still been distracting yourself, by knitting or cooking or playing music, but you’ve created something instead of played Words with Friends for two hours. – Nick Offerman

Oldie but a goodie. There is so much I love about this GQ&A with Nick Offerman (aka Ron Swanson). Also, side note, I am mildly obsessed with his tables.

This is something I’ve been working on lately — resisting temptation. Unfortunately, I don’t even mean temptation in an interesting/exotic/scandalous way. My temptations exist in the form of Facebook, Hulu, Instagram, KITTENS ON THE INTERNETZ. And of course the mundane tasks required to keep a household going… cooking, cleaning, laundry (and yet somehow I still never manage to FOLD said laundry…hmmm…).

That time I spend doing THOSE things? Could be spent MAKING something. My goal this year — write for at least 30 minutes every day. But really? Can we be honest? That’s pathetic. I’m a writer, writing is kind of what I’m supposed to do. And yes, technically, I write for hours and hours every day as part of my job. But I need to get better about setting time aside for MY writing. That book I’ve been working on for, oh, A YEAR AND A HALF? I COULD finish it writing 30 minutes a day, but that’d take about as long as a sloth attack.

On the positive side — since I gave myself this goal, I HAVE been fairly good about getting my 30 minutes in. One thing that’s helped: the Lift app. I feel ridiculous needing what amounts to a game in order to get my shit together…but if it works, it works. Once I start consistently doing my 30 minutes a day, I’m going to up that number. WATCH OUT, 60 MINUTES, HERE I COME!

How are YOUR goals going? Misery loves company. Tell me your struggles, denizens of the interwebs. We can do this together (perhaps with the help of a few apps).