6.19.2013

This is Why I Pants

Mmm... chocolate, peanuts, fucks
I want to preface this by saying that Libba Bray is my new favorite blogger of all time. Her article today on Writing Despair (Juice Box Mix) spoke so much to the state of my soul at this very moment that I felt no other recourse but to write my own bloggy version of "I know, right?!"

I think it's safe to say that for the last, oh, six months or so, I've been in a bit of what one might call a creative clusterfuck. 2012 was probably my best year yet for actual writing. I finished The Last Supper, got a book deal. Wrote and finished Strings, got a book deal on that. I wrote a great number of well-reviewed short stories, and then hunkered down to make 2013 EVEN BETTER. Write and release one short story a month! Finish Colt Coltrane and The Shiva Paradox and get MOAR BOOK DEALS! But things didn't quite happen that way, as they rarely do when I make very specific plans (which are very much like outlines for life, and I hate outlines with an ever-bleeding passion, which Libba Bray echoed so beautifully in her blog, but that I also ranted about here many moons ago).

So, with 2013 half gone (seriously, what the fuck?), here's how my plans have shaken down so far: I finished the final editing on The Last Supper back in March. It's in the middle of layout with Hobbes End and should be going to press within the next month or so, so that's exciting. I did manage to finish the first draft of Colt Coltrane and the Lotus Killer back in February, but it's currently languishing in the lower depths of editing hell. I have written/finished/released four short stories this year. Seeing as how it's entering late June as I write this, I've fallen shy of my one a month quota and might just finish with my usual 6-8 by the time 2013 ends. I think I may have taken a passing glance at Shiva, decided that the entire third act I'd been building was abysmal, deleted it, and then put it away with a sense of defeat and disgust branded on my soul.

I also made attempts at dreaming up sequels to Strings and The Last Supper, and I do have solid ideas for both of them, but I'm discovering I have a bit of a problem writing sequels that I will have to address in a future post. But other than that, things have been, again, clusterfucky. The problem hasn't been NO ideas, but too many, which a lot of people think is not really a problem, but it kind of is. It's the equivalent of having a walk-in closet full of cute outfits, but none of them fitting or looking "just right" when you go to put them on, so you wind up standing in the aftermath of an EF-5 clothing twister, wondering what became of your once semi-ordered life. So then you cry out to the cold-hearted bitch of a universe to please just give you ONE GOOD IDEA TO WORK WITH! Maybe even The One that will finally make you disgustingly Dan Brown or at least modestly Chuck Palahniuk famous.

Hey everybody! I found a cache of gerunds!
Well, the universe did spit something at me. Kind of. I have found that story ideas almost never come to me whole. They usually come in fragments, like the very tip of a gigantic something that must be unearthed in a colossal and complex archaeological dig. Sometimes that artifact is one good line. The Last Supper started that way ("My Last Supper comes with a salad.") as did Abner's Wisdom ("For the longest time, Max  blamed the kitty litter") and Epilogue ("I died while looking at the back of my husband's head."). They're like phantom whispers from the ether, and they're sticky little buggers that insist on being used somehow, somewhere. I usually examine them and turn them around in my brain for several days, seeing what will grow from them. Sometimes they start the story and stay intact. Other times, I find the line is just a tool to get the dig started. My most recent one for my current work in progress, STATIC, happened the same way. "Jeff Erlbaum wasn't sure it was safe to take his dog's painkillers, but it was all he had." That line started a few rough paragraphs on page one, but has since been replaced by something else, though the original line is still in the text several pages in.

But that line has evolved into a 21K-word and counting rambling crimey homage to small-town crooks, baseball, and maybe a little redemption (or non-redemption). I had no clear plot in mind when I started writing. Just that one line, and then a scene about a guy who got shot, but was rescued in the nick of time by his rottweiler named Chet, who sacrificed himself to take out the would-be assassin. I built it from there, scene by scene. Maybe Jeff Erlbaum somehow pissed off a local organized crime guy, and that's why he got shot. Sounds good. And maybe he didn't want to take his dog's painkillers because he's a recovering pill junkie! Done. And... and Maybe a bullet fragment entered his skull during the shooting and now he can hear radio voices in his head...from the future. BAZINGA!

There was a concept but not a lot of plot, and that was okay. I just wanted to grow the scenes and stack them up one on top of the other, introducing a colorful cast of characters along the way. I had no idea from one moment to the next what the fate of Jeff Erlbaum would be. I had some ghosts of ideations floating around in my mind, but nothing concrete. But of course, at some point, we all have to pay attention to that annoying machinery and ask "Where is this damn thing actually going?" And it's at that point that a story can either jump to the next level or die like a baby bird in the hand.

Either fly by the seat of your pants
or drown with the needle-fingered outline people?
That answer didn't occur to me until I was in the middle of writing a pivotal scene in chapter 5. Maybe it was because I enjoyed writing the cop character I'd introduced, but there was something about the scene and the way it was helping to sum up everything that had happened to the main character so far that acted like a pickax on the stubborn part of this dig, and a huge section of dirt and debris fell away to reveal the amazing structure lying beneath, a lost city no one had ever even known about until now.

I never could have gotten there by trying to plot an outline (i.e. planning it). The only way I could have gotten there was by doing the actual digging, the writing, and not trying to question the story into an early death (i.e. pantsing it). I'm not saying it will happen this way for everyone every time. Some people need those outlines. They require a scaffold and artifice in place before they can start building, and that's okay. But for the rest of us, sometimes, even when it doesn't make sense and doesn't seem like it's going anywhere and it feels like you're spinning your wheels and kicking dirt, what you're actually doing is digging deeper. And when you dig deep, you will sometimes loosen the one thing that will open up a whole hidden world for you.

And the feeling when that happens... it's like a drug. It's like huffing pure creativity. It's why I write.