Writing is a Battlefield (Earth)

To err is human, but to really mess things up, try justifying the err and wind up building an entire system of fragile excuses, self-pity, and loathing that lean on each other like a demented house of cards waiting to topple over at the slightest hint of wind.

Or maybe that’s just me.

The point is, we all make mistakes. Thankfully, most of them are not fatal to ourselves, career, or family. In most cases, the worst case scenario bears only a passing resemblance to what actually happens. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that we still have to cope with and process those mistakes and figure out how they fit into our lives. At the very least, most of our errors aren’t quite as public as being a credited writer on one of the worst movies ever released, Battlefield Earth.

I’m not writing this post to crack on Corey Mandell, because I actually admire the guy. Not for Battlefield Earth, because that would probably qualify you for a padded room and losing your scissor privileges for life. We’re talking about a flick that the first screenwriter, J.D. Shapiro, tried to avoid being given a writing credit. This is not the beginnings of a beautiful story.

What I took out of Mandell’s story is that it takes a lot of missteps and failures to get where you want to go. In this case, he wound up finding what he believes is his true purpose, writing. Would he have ended up in the same place without writing lines for a hero named Jonnie Goodboy Tyler? Maybe. But unless you’ve got the Eye of Agamotto hanging around and want to nip off to check out all the millions of alternate timelines, I feel pretty safe in saying that we can’t be sure.

(Seriously though, if you have that thing hanging around, drop me a line – I have some questions.)

This is in line with what posted yesterday – something I thought I was pretty good at that I’ve had to re-examine. Looking at all the parts of my life that have happened so far and accepting them all as part of what has gotten me here.

Even that time I rented Battlefield Earth.

Enduring the Edit

“I’ve found the best way to revise your own work is to pretend that somebody else wrote it and then to rip the living shit out of it.”Don Roff

The best thing about having two writing projects going at the same time is there’s always something to work on. Get stuck on this one, move to the other, and then vice versa. The worst part about having two writing projects going at the same time is that if you’re timing is off, you can wind up in the edit phase with both of them at the same time.

That’s where I am now.

The first project, a screenplay, was sent out for feedback awhile ago and came back with plenty of notes (totally expected) and an encouraging pat on the back (bonus!). I rewrote the first 15 pages, sent it back for some more feedback, got more notes, and am now in the process of working a full draft. The other project is a book of poems where I’ve stopped writing new material and have been focusing on revising what’s been written to assess where I’m at in the overall scheme of things.

One of the gifts from this process has been coming face-to-face with things I’ve often said but now have to question if they’re really true. The first thing is that “I know that all my poems aren’t great and I’m willing to write through the bad ones to get to the good ones.” The second is that “Because I only write for myself, it’s okay that I don’t revise things.”

Looking at those on my screen, it’s pretty easy to see the cozy log cabin of lies and deception that I constructed for myself. I mean, inside my head or coming out of my mouth, those things sound great. But sitting there in front of me, it’s tough to not call it for what it is.

Really, it’s an excuse to not do the extra work of editing and rewriting. In fact, now that I’ve exposed my own lies for all the world (or at least the couple dozen people who might stumble on this) to see, I’ll go a step further and say that I’ve been neglecting an entire portion of the writing process itself to my own detriment as well as the work itself.

Much as discouraging people to talk politics and religion leads to people not knowing how to talk about politics and religion, not editing and rewriting means you’re absolute crap at them. Even if I am writing primarily for my own pleasure, that doesn’t mean it has to suck, right?

So here I am, enduring the edit and trying to find the joy in it.

I may need a flashlight.

Heath

“The only way to keep your health is to eat what you don’t want, drink what you don’t like, and do what you’d rather not.”  – Mark Twain

I have never been accused of being obsessed with health. Growing up in a house where the family business was filling vending machines, there was plenty of access to foods that were built on the twin pillars of high fructose corn syrup and artificial coloring. As a kid, if it was time to run the mile in gym class, you best believe I was the last one puffing around the track by a wide margin.

Somewhere towards the end of high school, I started thin out and be more active. At the end of college, I learned to enjoy running. Of course, back in the day, I also did lots of stupid things like jumping off loading docks and running around on concrete floors with little to no disregard for my joints. At 43, my running days are behind me and it’s now all about the exercise bike. Much like a pitcher who’s lost some speed off their fastball, you either adapt or hang it up.

Aside from physical health, I’ve also come to realize how poor some of my creative, emotional, and spiritual disciplines were and how that was affecting my health as well. Which is why I’ve started on building small daily habits that will start putting me in line there too. Typing out these blog posts is one of them.

I had no idea what I was going to write about today and honestly, this post might not do anyone else any good at all. That’s fine. Sort of like me getting my 9 miles in on the bike this morning, it’s not about where I went (after all, it’s a stationary bike). It’s about getting my ass in the seat and putting in the work. Maybe it doesn’t pay off today, maybe it doesn’t pay off tomorrow. But it will eventually.

Sitrep Saturday

I’ve recently started a weekly accountability email with my friend and fellow writer Charles where we share what we’ve managed to do that week. Sometimes it’s uplifting,  others it’s a bit of a downer, and sometimes it’s downright comical. So I figured it was worth a shot also broadcasting these things to the entire world. Because why not?

As you may have noticed from previous posts, I’ve been reading through A Slip of the Keyboard by Terry Pratchett and will probably finish that up towards the beginning of next week. This was a lender from Charles along with its companion, A Blink of the Screen, which is a collection of his shorter fiction works. I tried the fiction first but couldn’t quite get into it – almost how I love everything Tom Robbins has written but couldn’t get into his collection of shorter works, Wild Ducks Flying Backwards. However, I do believe some of Pratchett’s novels will be making their way into my To-Read pile very soon.

Last week, I got feedback on my screenplay and started the process of re-writing when I realized that there were enough changes to the first fifteen pages that it would fundamentally change the tone of a couple characters and at least one relationship. A bit daunting. So I polished those fifteen pages up and sent it off to the person who gave me the feedback to see what they thought. Heard back from them that there’s still work to be done, but they feel I’m on the right track. I’ll take it. To page sixteen and beyond!

I’ve also been at work revising poems for another project I’ve been at work on this year and which I’d like to see done by the end of December. After an initial burst of deep editing the first session, I’ve come to realize that four to five poems is my limit for one day. I’ll start off hot by digging into the text and making change after change… and then a few poems later, realize there were no marks on the page at all. Perhaps that poems was actually fine as is, but more than likely I was going far too easy on it. Poems need tough love as well.

Tricks Of The Trade

“More than half the skill of writing lies in tricking the book out of your head.” – Terry Pratchett

I’ve been reading through A Slip of the Keyboard as of late, which is a collection of Terry Pratchett’s non-fiction writing. It’s interesting to read thoughts on writing from someone whom I’ve never read before. It feels to me like there was a time when I probably would’ve devoured his entire catalog, but I somehow missed the moment and have spent a bunch of time now dancing around his books. HIs work has been very important to several of the authors I’ve been reading the last couple years, but it’s like we’ve played phone tag this whole time or something.

At any rate, A Slip of the Keyboard. It’s quite good and chock full of humor that ranges from cheeky to full-on wiseass, but it’s written by a Brit, so even at its most snarky, Terry’s writing has a certain dignity. I have no idea how the British pull this off, but I feel it borders on a superpower. Maybe it’s just me.

All right, so it’s obvious that I won’t be able to rationally get to the book in any kind of timely manner, so let’s just focus on the quote above, shall we? Fine. He’s right. Thank you for coming to my TedTalk.

More? Okay. I feel Pratchett’s ideas about writing line up neatly with what Stephen King had to say in his book On Writing – that stories are really fossils hidden inside our minds that only need us to uncover them in a careful, deliberate way. Sometimes, that involves being extraordinarily careful with a small brush and a set of fine pick tools. Other times, it involves dynamite and the type of “careful” that sometimes leads to missing fingers or toes. Don’t think that’s careful? Damned lucky, because it could’ve been the whole foot or hand, right?

In mulling this idea over, it seems to me that it’s not exactly the content of the story but the shape of the story itself that’s the fossil. It’s the skeleton that you unearth along the way on which everything else has to hang – the meat and organs and skin of the thing. And I do believe that trickery is involved at times – that not all stories want to jump out into the spotlight. Some stories seem to be extroverts and some want to sit quietly in the corner until someone draws them slowly and gently into a conversation. Neither one is righter than the other, they just are.

Kicking It Outta The Nest

Normally, I spend some time at the beginning of the year coming up with some new goals for my new spin around the sun (I resolved to give up resolutions years ago and it’s so far been the only one I’ve managed to keep successfully), but this year, I picked up another one along the way. Sort of a goal hitchhiker if you will.

About 18 years ago, I had an idea for what I thought would be a novel. After spending a bunch of time writing out the opening few pages and getting overly frustrated, the thought occurred to me that maybe this wasn’t a book after all. Maybe it was a movie. So I downloaded a free copy of CeltX, learned a (very) little about screenplay formatting, and re-typed my opening scene. Still wound up frustrated and set it aside. This dance continued for a long time.

Two years ago, I decided to actually learn about the craft of screenwriting. I watched interviews with writers, read a couple books, and read dozens of scripts all while taking copious notes. I went back to my original screenplay and added a little here, a little there. Almost like I was building a rock wall, but only after digging the rocks up in my backyard. The script that I finished was based on a friend’s idea, and in spite of being the longest piece of sustained writing I’d done since college, we couldn’t quite agree on where it should go and I set it aside. In the meantime, I still had this other script waiting for me.

A few months ago, I realized it was pretty lame to have this script that had started it all just sitting there, unfinished. So I went back and gave it a read, surprising myself with how far it had gotten. Even more surprising was that I’d sketched out the remaining scenes before setting it aside – something I’d completely forgotten. I had the first two thirds of it written, knew the ending, and had an outline of how to get there. Now it would be tremendously stupid not to finish, so I got to work. Typing “fade out” after a few days was very satisfying.

Then came the hard part: revising. I’m not a fan. Not at all. But, much as I’m not a fan of flying but love travel, it’s something I’m willing to deal with if it gets me where I’m going. In this case, I wasn’t trying to find a warm spot in the sun, but a finished script that I’d be happy with. I was well aware that the first draft was a mess and that the second would be better, but nowhere near good. That’s not fishing for compliments or pick-me-ups, that’s just being realistic about my level of inexperience. I told myself that a finished third draft was the soonest I’d show anyone.

Last week, I got there. Now that I’d been staring at this thing for a couple months, perspective had been somewhat lost and there wasn’t any other good excuses to keep it from anyone else. So I showed it to my first reader and got a pretty solid thumbs up. It’s now in the hands of a person who worked in the industry doing script coverage as well as a fellow writer.

It’s an interesting mixture of curiosity, giddiness, and terror handing over something like that. But hey, what can you do? Then little bugger has to learn to fly at some point, right?

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Some writing wisdom from Neil Gaiman:

“You write. That’s the hard bit that nobody sees. You write on the good days and you write on the lousy days. Like a shark, you have to keep moving forward or you die. Writing may or may not be your salvation; it might or might not be your destiny. But that does not matter. What matters right now are the words, one after another. Find the next word. Write it down. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.”

Source

In reference to the article as a whole, guilty as charged. I was totally searching for writing tips as a way to put off writing. In fact, writing this post is just another way to put off writing the thing that I actually want to write but am scared spitless that I don’t really know how to write. But the catch is that I’ll never really know unless I… you guessed it… actually write the damn thing.

Excuses stripped away, guess I’ll be off to my word processor window now.

The Truth

“Everyone lies about writing. They lie about how easy it is or how hard it was. They perpetuate a romantic idea that writing is some beautiful experience that takes place in an architectural room filled with leather novels and chai tea. They talk about their ‘morning ritual’ and how they ‘dress for writing’ and the cabin in Big Sur where they go to ‘be alone’ – blah blah blah. No one tells the truth about writing a book. Authors pretend their stories were always shiny and perfect and just waiting to be written. The truth is, writing is this: hard and boring and occasionally great but usually not. Even I have lied about writing. I have told people that writing this book has been like brushing away dirt from a fossil. What a load of shit. It has been like hacking away at a freezer with a screwdriver.” – Amy Poehler (via Austin Kleon)

Writing is hard, it’s fun, it’s drudgery, it’s discouraging, it’s life-giving, it’s soul-sucking, etc, etc, etc. Suffice to say it’s a lot of things. On bad days, I wonder why in the world I continue doing it. On good days, I can’t imagine not doing it.

The trouble is, I’m not so sure that the choice is mine to make. Without writing, without an outlet, I get emotionally and artistically constipated. Now, maybe that’s a little too vivid for those reading this blog… oh wait, I’ve forgotten that this place got so dusty that I’d be surprised if bots were still stopping by here. Anyways…

It’s like eating vegetables, particularly the green ones that are the most nutritious. I do it because if I don’t, things will go badly. Along the way, I tend to find these moments when life changes – like when I found the perfect way to bake Brussels Sprouts and began to enjoy the little green buggers. Other times, it’s just something that needs to be done.

It’s like a really good job. Sometimes it’s amazing, sometimes it’s horrible, and most of the time it’s at least pretty good. I don’t get to choose which bit comes along next, I just punch the timeclock and see what happens next.