Environmentally Unconscious — Recycling Words

WHAT’S PLAYING:  Susan Enan feat. Sarah McLachlan “Bring on the Wonder”

I am a consumer. I love my Keurig coffee maker, bottled water, and gas guzzling muscle cars. On top of that, I don’t recycle and the closest I’ve ever come to gardening is the produce section at my local grocery store.

The odd thing is that most of my friends, if not all of them, are environmentally conscious. One couple even decided to experiment with raising goats for lawn maintenance. (That’s right. They prefer to use smelly, ornery creatures that  require constant care, instead of a lawnmower that can be neatly parked in the garage and forgotten about after use.) Another friend spent the last two years traveling to some of the most exotic spots in the world including BaliThailand, India, and Peru, where she spent most of her time immersing herself in different cultures and communing with Mother Nature. (Personally, I do my best communing from the comfort of my temperature-controlled, bug-free apartment.) To their credit, aside from the occasional reproachful look when they see me drinking bottled water, my friends tolerate my consumerism with good-natured resignation.

My friends will be happy to know, however, that I have recently started to recycle, though not in a way that will benefit Mother Earth.

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch said: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – whole-heartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press. Murder your darlings”.  And William Faulkner repeated this sentiment in his more often cited quote “In writing, you must kill your darlings.”

These quotes refer to the fine art of revision. Of taking the manuscript you’ve sweated and bled over for months if not years, and systematically removing every word, phrase, character or scene that doesn’t belong. It doesn’t matter how clever it is or how beautifully worded. If it doesn’t serve the story, out it goes, ostensibly never to be heard from again.

Personally, I’m against murder, especially when I’ve put so much effort into the process. Don’t get me wrong, I’m ruthless when it comes to cutting, but I like to think of it as putting my “darlings” in a coma. I’ve come far enough in my writing journey to realize that not everything belongs in a story. Some phrases, characters, scenes, etc. are meant just for me. They exist only to make me a better writer. These are my darlings, and I let them sleep in a special file, only to resuscitate them later in a different story. A sort of Writing Protection Program, if you will.

I’m not saying that every word I write will end up in print someday, but when I find myself searching for a particular image or turn of phrase, I’ll know where to find it.

And it won’t be in the graveyard.

Writing Lessons from Mom (Part 2) — Cause and Effect

WHAT’S PLAYING:  Florence + The Machine “Dog Days are Over”

My mother’s method of discipline was based on the “if/then” paradigm. For example: “If you don’t clean your room, then you don’t get to keep it.” or “If you give me any sass, then you won’t be able to sit down for a week.” (You get the picture.)

When I was twelve, I decided that I didn’t want to do the dishes anymore. To my surprise, after making sure that I understood the consequences of that decision, my mother agreed. No arguments, no threats, just a simple nod. The next morning, while my mother and siblings dug into a hearty breakfast of bacon, eggs and toast, I made do with a plastic bowl full of corn flakes. That night, while my family dined on fried chicken, collard greens, and cornbread, I choked down a cold bologna sandwich served on a paper plate. But the joke was on her. I had finally gotten a taste of freedom and I wasn’t about to give up my newly found independence so easily. (I lasted another two days.)

Despite my ill-fated attempts at rebellion, I found a strange sort of comfort in my mother’s rules. Everything was spelled out. There were no surprises. I knew the consequences of each action and made my decisions accordingly. To her credit, my mother never wavered. I couldn’t beg, barter or argue my way out of trouble. If I wanted to stay out past curfew, then I would be grounded for the next two weeks. If I didn’t clean my room when asked, then I would lose the privilege of having my space until I did.

I get the same comfortable feeling when I pick up a book and find that I am in the hands of a master storyteller who knows how to manage his or her plot. There is nothing more frustrating than getting deeply involved in a story only to have it fall apart near the end, or worse, wander off into completely new territory, leaving me lost, confused, and extremely irritated.

I guess I can understand why an author would deviate from his or her established plot. It used to happen to me all the time. I’d be putting the final touches on a story, when I’d suddenly get a brainstorm – a fantastic idea that would catapult my story into greatness. (Or so I thought.) I’d immediately plop down into my chair and start churning out new pages, completely forgetting about all that had gone on before. And what I’d end up with more often than not was a sloppy, episodic mess.

And then my teacher sent me a not so polite e-mail suggesting that maybe I investigate the causal chain in my stories. After looking up the term in the dictionary, I finally understood. If I wanted to be a decent writer, then I was going to have to take a page from my mother’s playbook and apply the “if/then” philosophy. That was how I discovered the magic of plot graphs. Now, whenever I come up with a new idea, I make sure that it fits in with the story arc and that it passes the stimulus and response test. Doing this allows me to write a solid, entertaining story that doesn’t come off like the transcript of a video game.

So, once again, my mother taught me a lesson about life and writing. Thankfully, this particular lesson came without the cold bologna sandwich.

First Dates and First Drafts – How My Personal Life Mirrors My Professional One

WHAT’S PLAYING: Simple Minds “Don’t You Forget About Me”

Despite my introverted nature, I have occasionally ventured into the murky waters of romance. With one exception, my forays into dating usually last for about a month. Two at the most. My past relationships fell apart for a variety of reasons, some of them my fault. (If anyone asks though, I blame my exes. Every. Last. One.)

Truth is, one of the major reasons dating never seems to work out for me is that after a couple of months it actually starts to involve…well, work. You know what I mean. The sheen of newness has been worn away by near daily interaction, and you find that all those little quirks (so adorable back when you started dating), are now just annoying. Soon, you find yourself sickened by the very sight of them. (Or is that just me?)

I tend to have the same problems with writing projects. They start out all brilliant and cool and fresh. Next thing you know, they’ve fizzled faster than a Tiki Barber comeback. When that happens, I usually find that it’s not the story’s fault. Yes, there are major plot and character flaws, but that’s common for most first drafts. No, it’s my perception of the story that has changed. Suddenly, it’s no longer flowing from my brain like water, cascading from my fingertips to the screen. Instead, it’s more like sludge, molasses in wintertime, bathroom breaks after too much cheese. Every page, every sentence, every word requires a monumental effort.

After the initial rush, I often find that I have no idea where I’m going or how I plan to get there. Plotting and outlining helps, but sometimes, the best way to figure out the story you want to tell is to wade hip deep into another one. Though usually I get so fed up with the struggle that I abandon the project midway through the first draft.

Not this time though. With a little prodding from my mentor, the magnificent John Shirley, I actually finished the first draft of my novel and am slowly making my way through the second. Yes, it’s still awful – full of plot holes and cardboard characters – but I’ve finally found a story I want to tell, need to tell, and a main character that can not only pull it off, but do so with style.

It will be months, if not years, before it’s ready to released to the public, but at least I can finally say that I’ve written a novel. I’ve finally broken my streak of abandoning first drafts.

Now, if only I could same the same thing about dating.

In Praise of Rainy Days

WHAT’S PLAYING:  Adele “Make You Feel My Love”

It’s been raining all week here in New Hampshire and — like the commercial says — I’m loving it. I like the rain. I like the fresh, clean smell that comes with each downpour. I like to fall  asleep to the sound of it drumming on my roof. I even prefer to take my daily walks outside when it rains. (Unless, of course, I’ve just visited the salon. Yes, I know it’s a stereotype, but the harsh reality is that sleekly styled ethnic hair and rain just don’t mix.)

But the thing I like most about rain is how it makes other people want to stay indoors. Every stormy day is a chance for me to run errands without having to interact with other people. I can’t tell you how good it feels to pull into the parking lot of my local grocery store and see that it’s almost empty. No screaming kids, no interminable lines, no creeping octogenarians, and most importantly, no morons wheeling full carts up to the 12 items or less check out stations. (You know who you are.) I usually have to do my shopping at five in the morning to get the same kind of solitude.

It’s not just the isolation I find appealing. Rain always puts me into an introspective mood that’s perfect for writing and even better for reading. The world just seems to stop and relax. Almost like sliding into a hot bubble bath after a long day’s work. Once the storm has passed, I feel renewed and invigorated to face the challenges of tomorrow. I can’t think of a better
time to start fresh than after a deluge.

So, what will you start? A new novel? Project? Lifestyle? Better hurry. Rainy days won’t last forever.

In Distress — Getting into Your Characters’ Heads

WHAT’S PLAYING: Nicki Minaj and Rihanna “Fly”

Recently, I read an article about two adult siblings who sued their mother for “emotional distress” due to bad parenting.

You can read the full article here:

http://abcnews.go.com/US/adult-children-sue-mom-bad-parent/story?id=14407409

After reading their litany of complaints, my first reaction was “Are you f-ing kidding me?! What a couple of spoiled, entitled douche bags!” When I was a kid, instead of a new toy, my mother would give me a stick and tell me to go play outside. On hot summer days, while other kids were enjoying sno-cones and freeze pops, I had to make do with frozen beef jerky.

After my initial burst of outrage, I tried looking at the situation from a writer’s point of view, unfiltered through the lens of my own experiences. In my ultra-pragmatic mother’s world, a parent’s only responsibility was to provide their children’s basic needs: food, clothing, shelter, and love. (The last item became optional once the kid got past a certain age.) If I wanted something, I had to work for it. It was that simple. Then again, my mother was a blind seamstress raising three kids in one of the poorest states in the country.

The lawsuit siblings grew up in a very different environment, with unique perspectives. Maybe money was the primary way of expressing affection in their family. (Who needs hugs when you can get hundreds?) The point is that, without knowing what went on during their formative years, I was in no position to judge them. At least, not as a writer.

Many times, characters in my stories will act and speak in ways that I wouldn’t. Those are the times I have to become a method actor of sorts, sifting through false memories of parents, friends, childhoods and environments. I have to get inside each character’s head to see what makes them tick. Then, after I’ve assembled a complete dossier, I ask myself if it was really just the abuse that turned this person into a killer/sexual predator/complete asshole. Sometimes people just are who they are, childhood environment notwithstanding.

As a writer, I want to be able to write well about anything and anyone. Whether or not I choose to is beside the point. I want the choice. And so, I think, should you. So, go ahead. Dive deep into your characters’ psyches and see what kind of disturbing images you come up with. Maybe your next great idea will involve a serial killer or a sexual predator.

Or maybe even a couple of spoiled, entitled douche bags.