Misbehaving Minds, Connections, and Reflux

There’s a quote, attributed to Oscar Wilde that, “A writer is someone who has taught his mind to misbehave.” For me, that takes the form of connecting several unrelated things, until I have an interesting premise, a kernel of something.

Case in point: A few years ago, I flew to Jackson Hole, Wyoming for a buddy’s wedding. While connecting in Denver, I had a quick lunch – this delicious Tuscan chicken sandwich, slathered in a delightful oil dressing (this is important).

I grabbed my connection, and was on my way for the one hour flight.

Usually when I fly, I take Dramamine for motion sickness, but it also tires me out, and I knew I had to rent a car when I landed, so before this flight I took just a minimal dose.

It wasn’t enough.

Right after take-off, we hit turbulence and my stomach lurched. The flight didn’t improve from there. With each jolt and weave, my nausea grew. After forty minutes of suffering, I knew I wasn’t going to make the entire flight, so I reached for the airsick bag.

I filled it.

My kind row-mates nervously handed me their bags as well, and I continued to heave throughout the approach and landing, missing only a couple drops that I discretely wiped up with a tissue. As discretely as you can do anything on these cramped flights.

After we landed, I shuffled off the plane and went with the herd to baggage claim, then took a seat to collect my wits, thought about the whole experience, and recalled a certain detail:

That Tuscan chicken sandwich tasted just as delicious on the way back up.

Seriously, there was not a hint of stomach acid or bile. It tasted exactly the same, as if my stomach had looked at the initial deposit, referenced my flight time, then said, “Eh, this will take care of itself”, and never bothered to start digesting.

The reason is because I take acid blockers for chronic reflux. My stomach produces no acid, instead relying on all the other enzymes for digestion. So vomiting is slightly less unpleasant for me than for other folks (it still sucks). But my mind ran with this. Later I connected the dots and shared this thought with my wife:

“I’m not bulimic, but if I were, taking an acid blocker would be the way to go. No acid, no tooth decay, no Barret’s esophagus. You’d still have bad breath, but….”

She just looked at me, “wtf” written all over her face, then said, “What kind of example do you want to set for our daughters?”

And without realizing it, she provided another connection. Bulimia isn’t something to be addressed flippantly. The tone of a story with these details would have to take into account the complexities around that issue. It’s a kernel though, an idea of a character with a problem who maybe focuses on the small details at the expense of the grander picture.

I’m not sure how or even if I’ll ever grow that into something more, but ideas are free. If you want to take that ball and run with it, let me know what you come up with.

-Pete

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Johnny Storm

I was sitting on a kitchen counter at a holiday party several years ago, having a drink, grazing on snacks, and kibitzing with friends. My buddy Ron provoked me, so I jumped off the counter to get in his face. As my feet touched the linoleum, a series of thoughts whipped through my head in a split second:

  • What’s that smell?
  • I think it’s burning paper.
  • My back is awfully warm.
  • Wasn’t there a candle behind me on the counter?
  • I wonder if I’m on fire?
  • lifts arm -sees flames
  • Holy shit, I’m on fire.

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All I Needed Was a Cape

“You know, Robin’s entire family was killed doing this,” I said to my wife as we watched her sister hook her legs onto the trapeze bar and arch her back as she swung upside down.

“You’re awful,” my wife remarked, albeit with a slight grin.

As writers, we’re often told, “Write what you know”.  I would add to that a maxim I read somewhere, “The only way to know is by doing”. The more experiences we have, the more realistically we write, etc. (and the more connections we can make between experiences, somewhere we’ll find a fresh connection that becomes a story).

It was in this spirit that I agreed to go along on my sister-in-law’s birthday gift: a trapeze lesson! She’s a gymnast, and this sounded fun to her. My wife signed on right away. I was skeptical, but I said, what the hell, it might be fun, or I might injure myself spectacularly. Either way, life gets interesting.

As the day approached however, my hesitation grew, because I’m 42 years old and not in the best shape. I’ve had a couple surgeries, arthritis, some back issues, and a bulging belly. More and more, I thought, “This might end badly”.  But of course, the only way to know, was …to do it.

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2015 Q2 Progress Report

We’re about halfway through 2015. Here’s where I am with the book and other goals.

Release A Togahan’s Chance, (aka “novel #3”): Still working through the first revision. I just wrapped up chapter 14 (out of 21). According to my mega-schedule spreadsheet, I am 58.1% of the way through the whole project. I haven’t made up the time I thought I would, but I’ve pretty much stuck to the scheduled pace. At this rate, I hope to have it in my beta readers’ hands before Thanksgiving.

Write 52 Posts in 2015: This post marks my 26th for the year. This being the 26th week, we’re still on schedule. The posts have helped me flesh out (or fizzle out) a lot of creative tangents, but I want to finish out the year before I pass judgment.

Read 20 books in 2015: I’ve almost finished Woken Furies by Rickard K. Morgan, the third in the Takeshi Kovacs series, which I’m enjoying. I’ve bounced back and forth between his books and some other random ones (including Boundary Crossed by Melissa F. Olson, which has spurred me to read the rest of that series). Woken Furies brings my total to 11, leaving 9 more to read in about 26 weeks, or about 2.5 weeks/book. Still do-able. I’ve had a few chunky books in there, and some light non-fiction, so if I keep mixing it up that way I’m sure I can meet that goal despite my slow-as-shit reading pace.

So far, I’ve stayed on target, but here comes summer with a minefield of a calendar. I’ll have to be more agile with my time to keep the pace. I’ll let you know in September.

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Decade

Right now my wife is reading this book entitled What Alice Forgot, where the protagonist gets a concussion and forgets the last decade of her life. Everything that seems recent to her is ancient history to her friends and family. She has children she doesn’t know and a husband she loves who wants to divorce her because of history she can’t recall. The story unfolds as she learns more about the choices and events of her last decade, and the past “her” does not like the present “her”. (I’m in the middle of another novel, and since I read slowly, I’m perfectly happy with my wife relaying the story after dinner each night.)

The story is timely for us because tomorrow we celebrate our ten year anniversary, and my wife asked me the other night: if I did lose my memory that way, would the past me look at my current life with approval or scorn?

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The Painted Spider

When I got out of school, I rented an apartment with a couple of roommates. Per state law, the landlord repainted the place just before we moved in. And they painted everything. Walls, ceilings, window frames, heater registers, doors… doorknobs. And where one of the windows was cracked open and a dead spider dangled by a single strand, they painted the web and the spider.

Yes, there was a thin coat of white paint on this tiny spider. It wasn’t sloppy, it took effort to paint the spider where it hung and not just brush it away.

They painted a dead, dangling spider. On purpose.

At the time I laughed it off, but have since recalled that image when thinking about project quality, especially when reviewing my own work—particularly editing (since that’s the bulk of what I’ve been doing lately).

It takes effort to correct a shitty sentence, but it takes a larger perspective to recognize when the sentence doesn’t belong there in the first place. Editing isn’t just about cleaning up grammar and commas. It’s also about viewing every sentence in the context of the paragraph and the ones before and after. Does it fit? Does it flow?

  • If it repeats information the reader already knows
  • If it interrupts the flow of a particular thought
  • If it drags out a detail that’s not entirely relevant

…out it goes (or if the information matters, I’ll reduce or reorder it into neighboring sentences).

Someday I’ll be done editing, and hopefully I’ll have cleared out all the spiders, instead of just painting them. Stay tuned.

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Watch the Deleted Scenes

It used to be that a DVD’s additional material—the deleted scenes, the extended scenes—were these Easter Eggs of story canon from which fans could eek ever more detail and geek out on message boards. The Matrix of course was the first and best at this, the vanguard of the DVD scene at the turn of the century*. And all the Lord of the Rings films remain richer for their extended scenes, allowing us to dive into every Middle Earth detail, at the expense of pacing. In fact, my wife and I made that a holiday tradition, watching all three movies over a couple of days, pausing whenvever for snacks or whatnot.

But somewhere along the way, the deleted/extended scenes lost their luster. Watching them after a particularly enjoyable film somehow took away from that film’s impact. They got dull, or were poorly produced, thrown onto every DVD so that someone could check a box that they’d included the content. So we stopped watching them together.

Well, not entirely. I’ve returned to them when I can, because there is something to be learned from the deleted content, especially if you’re a writer of any sort.

Even when the director doesn’t explicitly say why they removed the scene, it’s either obvious or easily gleaned. The reason could have been for pacing, or the content was tangential/irrelevant, out-of-character dialog, or was done to downgrade the movie’s rating if the content was too extreme. All of these are reasons why I might crop content from my own novels. I like to watch these scenes to see what the creators were thinking.

So if you’re a creator of any sort, I encourage you to watch the deleted scenes—not for the Easter Eggs, but for the insight into the creative process. Watch a couple thousand, and you’ll probably have a good handle on it.

*Does that statement make you feel old? Good.

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Struggle and Thrive

When Joss Whedon was writing Buffy the Vampire Slayer, he received much praise for his witty writing and the characters’ artful banter. Then he wrote the episode Hush, where a plot device robbed the characters of their voices, and deprived Whedon of his greatest strength—his dialog. Thus constrained, he forced his characters to communicate through other means, and himself to communicate to his audience through non-verbal cues and expressions. Fast forward to the last few years, and we see this skill finely tuned in the character chemistry of The Avengers. Throughout the movie, the characters communicate and define themselves and their relationships on multiple levels, allowing Whedon to tell a complex, character-driven story in a short amount of time.

In the documentary It Might Get Loud, Jack White describes how by challenging himself and making his stage performance more difficult, it forces him to get creative to succeed. By lunging farther across stage, rushing harder to keep time as he jumps instruments, the music he produces is more raw and more real.

Last year, web comic artist Chris Rusche almost gave up on his labor of love http://shotgunshuffle.com/ until fans rallied and convinced him to keep going. Following his archive, you can see his art improve over the years, and he often blogs about pushing himself harder to increase his skill. Rusche’s later strips communicate on multiple levels through dialog, lighting, expression, and mannerism, (as well as easter-egg jokes galore). His strips are frequently a day or two late, but the fans don’t care—the product is that good.

I don’t challenge myself the way these folks do, but their method gives me pause, and forces me to ask that question. How do I challenge myself? How can I push myself farther, to produce something better, not just more of the same quality? I don’t have good answers yet, but thinking about these examples are a starting point, and it’s something to chew on while I edit.

How about you? What artist’s method inspires you? What self-imposed struggles have enabled you to thrive in your craft?

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Buck a buck

Several years ago I gave voice recognition a try. It looked promising and efficient (and a friend raved about it, but I think that’s because he owned stock in one of the companies). So I did some research, bought one of the more popular versions and installed it on my Windows 98 machine (yee-hah!).

I donned the headset microphone, fired it up, and went through the “teaching” phase, where the software displayed five hundred quotes, famous or otherwise, and I recited them back so that it could learn my accent. That took maybe an hour or two. I also glanced through the tutorial and realized that not only could I dictate the words, but also the editing, i.e. if I paused, then told it, “delete the last four words”, the software would suspend dictation, pick up on the word “delete”, and then delete the last four words I had typed. On the downside, I also had to dictate punctuation, which isn’t a big deal if I were writing a memo, but got tricky during dialog. For instance, to get

“Don’t you think the software might have improved in the last decade?” Matt blurted impatiently.

I would have to say out loud, “Indent open quote don’t you think the software might have improved in the last decade question mark close quote Matt blurted impatiently period.”

…which is a little jarring, but I suppose with a lot of practice I might get used to it.

So I started. I said, “Dante walked into the alley, suspicious of the guy who was following him, period.” This appeared on the page:

Dante walked into the alley suspicious of the guy who was following him.

I wanted to change that though, so I paused and tried the editing commands.

“Insert a comma after alley.”

Dante walked into the alley suspicious of the guy who was following him. Insert a comment after alley

“No, Delete that last sentence.”

Dante walked into the alley suspicious of the guy who was following him. Insert a comment after alley no delete that last sentence

“No no no,” I said, ignoring the obvious.

Dante walked into the alley suspicious of the guy who was following him. Insert a comment after alley no delete that last sentence no no no

“You fucking suck,” I blurted, frustrated.

Buck a buck

And….that ended my brief experiment with voice-recognized writing. Perhaps with a lot of patient teaching and editing, I could get the software to do what I wanted, but I quickly realized it was just easier for me to touch type.

Granted, this was a decade ago, and since then voice recognition has come a long way. Although I’m very comfortable with my current methods (typing allows me to express the forming thought at a comfortable pace), I might revisit it. I can see its advantage in the legal profession, because among other things, the software let you set up templates and hotkeys, where you could say “Insert standard paragraph 1-B”, and it would just dump in predefined, proofread, boilerplate text. So you could verbally drag-n-drop a complete, complex legal document in a few minutes, and then search-replace the relevant terms.

It’s a little harder with novel writing, I imagine, and probably wouldn’t work in a cube farm because of the noise, but are other folks using it? What are your experiences?

-Pete

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Short and Sweet

When my first daughter was born, people came out of the woodwork with advice, but my buddy Kevin gave me this little nugget:

You’ll want to tell people about everything your kid does. Don’t. No one cares. If you absolutely have to tell a story, keep it to three sentences and make sure it’s funny.”

Three sentences is not a lot. Maybe forty-five to fifty words. Despite the challenge, I saw the wisdom in the advice, and kept my kid anecdotes short.

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